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It pays to be on council

June 7, 2013

WOONSOCKET – Even after taking a 10 percent pay cut recently, members of the City Council are still among the highest paid officials of their kind in the state, at $9,000 a year.
But all that could change if a proposal to slash the salaries of councilors and members of the School Committee gains any traction at a special meeting called for Monday night. Council salaries would drop by 33 percent, taking them down to $6,000.
For school officials, the cut would be closer to 44 percent, dropping salaries from $7,200 to $4,000, with a $250 perk for the chairperson.
It’s one of only two items on the agenda of the hastily-called meeting, which more than one council member said caught him by surprise. The other item is a proposal to increase the per unit household trash fee from $96 to $192 a year, part of the Budget Commission’s five-year solvency plan.
The proposed salary cuts were advanced by Council President John Ward at the urging of Budget Commission Chairman William Sequino, according to a series of e-mails circulating among council members. So far, the proposal is getting a mixed reception from members of the council, some of whom have complained that the proposal was dumped on them rather unexpectedly.
“I have to tell you I was taken by surprise and kind of blindsided,” said Councilman Robert Moreau. “We’ve never been given the slightest hint that this was going to be put forward.”
Moreau isn’t necessarily opposed to a pay cut, but he says there should have been a separate meeting to discuss the size beforehand.
“It comes as a shock,” said Councilman Marc Dubois. “First of all I don’t know where they’re arbitrarily coming up with that 33 percent.”
Dubois says he doesn’t mind taking a cut as long as other non-union and elected officials also take one.
Councilman Dan Gendron came out as the most vociferous opponent to the proposed cuts. Indeed, he says the council should show leadership by sharing in the sacrifices that are being asked of city residents, employees and retirees.
“In fact the council did lead. One and a half years ago the council took a 10 percent pay cut based on a resolution I put forth,” he said. “We led by example and that’s where the leadership ended. I’m happy to lead again but I am not interested in taking a 33 percent pay cut if the gesture is going to be squandered in a fashion similar to when we led with a 10 percent pay cut.”
Gendron said he isn’t aware of anyone in city government, union or non-union, other than members of the council and school committee, who have taken a pay cut. Some have had pay freezes, but not cuts.
“With that in mind I am not anxious to support another pay cut until I see some shared sacrifice,’ he said.
Councilman Al Brien took just the opposite position. In view of the sacrifices taxpayers, employees unions and retirees are being asked to make in the name of the budget commission’s five-year plan, he said the proposal is fair.
“I certainly don’t have any objection to it,” he said. “Implied in the communication from the council president, they’re trying to make a statement that there needs to be a totally shared sacrifice. If it’s shared sacrifice it has to include everybody.”

A 2012 SURVEY by the state Department of Revenue says only two communities in the state pay their city council members more than Woonsocket. Providence ranked first, at $20,850 for the council president, $18,765 for other members. Second place goes to Warwick, with $10,500 a year for the council president and $10,000 for everyone else.
Providence and Warwick also provide health benefits to their councilors, but Woonsocket does not. Nor do most other communities in the state, for that matter.
Pawtucket, which has nearly twice the population of Woonsocket’s roughly 41,100 residents, is the only other community in the Blackstone Valley where council salaries come close to those of Woonsocket, $7,372 for members, $8,425 for the council president. Councilors are paid $2,000 in North Smithfield; $2,500 in Lincoln and Glocester; $2,400 in Cumberland; and $6,500 in Burrillville. In Central Falls, they’re paid nothing, according to the DOR.
One city watchdog who jumped into the debate – sharply against the cuts – was Garrett Mancieri, an unsuccessful candidate for City Council in the 2011 elections and now an appointed member of the Assessment Board of Review. Basically, Mancieri argues, you get what you pay for.
He says the savings from the cuts are too small to make a dent in the city’s deficits and will only serve to exclude blue-collar and working-class candidates from running for office by diminishing the value of the time they spend on city work.
“This is a political tactic to deter qualified candidates that do not make $60,000-$80,000 a year in their full time jobs and will result in less candidates for these offices,” he said via e-mail. “Woonsocket is going through its most difficult time in recent history and the time these officials spend on city issues should increase, not decrease.”
Town-by-town comparisons for school officials are harder to come by than those of councilors, but local school board members earn more than twice as much as those in East Providence, a city to which Woonsocket is often compared because of similarities in population size and demographics. A spokeswoman for the East Providence Education Department said school board members are paid a stipend of $3,500, with the exception of the chairperson, who earns $4,500.
Ward, who is also a member of the budget commission, could not be reached for comment on Friday.
Meanwhile, the other item on the agenda of Monday’s meeting, the increase in the trash fee, is designed to raise another $1 million in revenue as part of the Budget Commission’s five-year solvency plan to eliminate multi-million-dollar deficits, according to Public Works Director Sheila McGauvran. The only other option officials had considered to raise revenue was known as pay-as-you-throw, a system that charges homeowners for individual trash bags as a way to encourage recycling.
Also known as “trash metering,” the latter system is, arguably, more equitable than a flat fee because the charge is tied to the volume of trash homeowners generate and, in turn, how much landfill space they’re consuming, says McGauvran. Based on feedback from the general public, however, pay-as-you-throw will not be considered in the foreseeable future.
“People don’t like bags,” she says.
The irregularly-scheduled “special” meeting is set to begin at 6:45 p.m. Monday in the Second Floor Conference Room at City Hall.

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