WOONSOCKET — In this era of scant resources and shrinking government, being mayor of the state's seventh largest city isn't as glamorous as it used to be. But it looks like Mayor Leo T. Fontaine will get to keep the job for another two years without a fight, if he wants it.
And he does.
“I never really had any doubts about it,” said Fontaine. “I'm not going to be one of these guys that's around for 20 years, but clearly we've started some things I think need to be continued.”
With fewer than six weeks to go before the declaration period for candidates, Fontaine says he will run for a second term — the only political figure who is definitely in the race for mayor so far. The usual signs of an impending challenge — sustained rhetorical attacks from a potential candidate, a fundraising effort — have failed to materialize from any quarter.
Among the likely challengers, no one had looked more like he was gearing up for a race against Fontaine than Steve J. Lima. The businessman behind the Bernon Mills Estates condo project snagged an impressive 23 percent of the vote in a four-way primary against Fontaine, former police sergeant Todd Brien and Michael Mello in October 2009 during his first bid for public office.
Since then, Lima went on to become president of the Woonsocket Taxpayer Coalition — the local version of the small-government Tea Party movement. He also launched a weekly issues-oriented radio program that seemed to heighten his profile and give him a forum to expound on the issues.
Lima says there “isn't much I do like” about Fontaine's handling of city affairs — but he's leaning away from challenging the incumbent at this time. Lima said he's having trouble keeping his long-struggling condo conversion afloat, and he points the finger of blame largely at the Fontaine administration.
After years of efforts to market the 48-unit project on Front Street, Lima said, he sold his first two units recently. But the constant drumbeat of negativity from the Fontaine administration have made the project look like a lousy investment, the death-knell for sales.
“After we threatened we're going bankrupt, we're going to be the next Central Falls, would you want to spend a quarter million dollars for one of my units?” says Lima. “Probably not.”
Lima predicts he's going “to give the project back to the bank” within a very short time. The financing simply won't hang together if the project isn't generating any revenue.
Lima, 40, who built up most of the capital for the project from his main business as an independent fiber-optics contractor, says that, like most people, he can't afford to abandon his job right now to take a pay cut as mayor.
While he hasn't ruled out a run for the top spot altogether, Lima says it's more likely he'll run for City Council. The WTC expects to field several good candidates to challenge incumbents on the board, he says.
“One way or another I'll try to get more involved with the city,” he said.
Another individual who has sounded a lot like a challenger in recent months is Albert G. Brien, a former finance director and state representative. He seldom misses an opportunity to square off against Fontaine over some policy issue or another, most visibly in recent months over the construction of a co-generation turbine at the Synagro sludge incinerator.
The project calls for some $10 million worth of new infrastructure which the city apparently has no intention of taxing as business equipment — a decision Brien has attacked as a policy flaw that robs the city of sorely needed revenue.
“I'm just so upset — it's not a pretty picture we have have before us,” says Brien.
At best, however, Brien, who is in his mid-60s, classifies himself as a “weak maybe” on the question of a possible run for mayor. His purpose in speaking out on the issues during City Council meetings hasn't been to heighten his profile as a possible candidate, says Brien, but mainly to offer an alternative point of view.
“I don't think I've ever gotten up there and been a critic,” he says.
Former police sergeant Todd R. Brien, who ran against former Mayor Susan D. Menard twice and Fontaine once since 2005, still posts politically-flavored commentary for facebook friends. But efforts to reach Brien for comment about his plans for the political future yesterday were not successful.
Another political figure often mentioned by the pundits as a possible mayoral hopeful is State Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (D-Woonsocket), a lawmaker since 2007.
She's often outspoken on down-home political issues and has championed a nascent rehabilitation of ailing World War II Veterans Memorial State Park with the support of legislative leaders.
But Baldelli-Hunt says she's definitely not going to run against Fontaine.
“I have been approached by more than two different groups of people,” said Baldelli-Hunt, niece of former Mayor Charles Baldelli. “It's not something I was thinking about at this time.”
But Baldelli-Hunt offered a gentle critique of the Fontaine adminstration, saying, “I think we need to be a little more creative.”
So far, the only person who has affirmed his intention to run for mayor in November is Michael Moniz. He issued a press release announcing his intentions months ago, but efforts to reach him for comment yesterday were not successful.
Moniz has tossed his hat into one race or another during practically every election cycle for at least a decade without winning anything — with one notable exception. He once won a seat on the Democratic City Committee, a position he apparently still holds.
Fontaine, who just turned 41, acknowledges he might not face a challenger in his first bid for re-election. He says he's not counting on it, but he understands why it might happen.
“At this juncture, this job just isn't for the faint of heart,” he says.
Though some may not like hearing about it, the desperate condition of the city's finances and his administration's efforts to restore the city's fiscal health have been a key focus of his first term. Property taxes have risen two fiscal cycles in a row during Fontaine's reign, the bond rating teeters at the brink of junk status and the city continues struggling with insolvency.
The major work of Fontaine's administration so far has been the passage of a $12 million bond to plug years' worth of deficits — the core of the problem. The payback comes to some $2.9 million annually over five years, a big nut that every taxpayer will feel.
But Fontaine says the plan staved off bankruptcy and over time will restore the city's bond rating to health. And, after his first full year in office, the city appears to have finished the year with a balanced budget, perhaps even a small surplus.
“I think we have a pretty strong record to run on,” he says.