WOONSOCKET — Nearly a quarter of the 25 candidates running for seats on the City Council and School Committee are carrying account balances for various city taxes and fees that are so delinquent they’ve already been assessed penalties.
Another handful also have accounts listed as past due, but city officials couldn’t be certain they were delinquent, citing a lag time involved in bank processing of receivables.
In the former category, the amounts owed range from less than $100 to nearly $5,000, a distinction that goes to Steve Lima, the president of the city’s homegrown good-government watchdog group, the Woonsocket Taxpayer Coalition.
Records from the city’s finance department show that Lima has a delinquent balance of $4,497 in combined water and sewer fees for two entities he controls, a mill at 115 Singleton St., and Bernon Mills Property Development LLC, the holding company for Bernon Mills Estates condominiums at 115 Front St.
Lima, an unsuccessful candidate for mayor in 2009, is now one of 15 candidates for City Council. He is also a member of the Planning Board. Some of the bills in question have been unpaid since 2007.
Records list the owner of 151 Singleton St. as Future Com – Lima’s telecommunications company. He is also the main investor in Bernon Mills Estates, a 40-plus unit condo project that has been a work in progress for several years.
When the delinquency situation was brought to Lima’s attention, he called the overdue balance “an oversight.” He also complained that he was being overbilled at 151 Singleton St. because the structure isn’t fit for occupancy – though he said he would not file a formal complaint.
“They charge ridiculous rates for a building that is unoccupied,” he said. “It’s one of those things. It’s an oversight but it will be rectified.”
The next-largest delinquency is owed by Albert G. Brien, a former state representative and former city finance director who is also vying for a seat on the City Council. City records indicate he owes about $1,970 in water and sewer bills, mostly on a tenement he owns at 155 Transit St., but also some a commercial building at 62 Hamlet Ave.
In an interview, Brien said a bank with which he recently refinanced the Transit Street property is supposed to pay the bills. He said he has tried to encourage the bank to do so, but the company, which is holding the necessary funds in escrow, has been less than responsive.
He said the delay was little more than bureaucratic red tape and blamed Mayor Leo T. Fontaine for releasing the information to thwart his prospects in the election.
“This is silly,” said Brien. “These things happen all the time.”
There’s no question, Brien agreed, that it’s not good politics to run for elective office while carrying a delinquent balance for city utilities, but “I will say there are times when there are extenuating circumstances and those have to be factored in.”
The Fontaine administration provided details on accounts for all the candidates at the request of The Call after a reporter heard rumors that some of the candidates were carrying delinquent balances for motor vehicle taxes, water and sewer fees, tangible property taxes, and other types of taxes and fees.
The council candidates square off in a primary on Oct. 11. The primary is necessary to pare down the field to a maximum of 14 allowable entries for the general election next on Nov. 8, in which 10 seats on the School Committee are also at stake.
Fontaine dismissed the suggestion that the information was released for political reasons. But he said candidates for public office don’t inspire much confidence in their ability to manage the challenges of the city’s fiscal affairs when they don’t seem to have a handle on their own.
Granted, some might have difficulty meeting their obligations in these tough economic times, said Fontaine, “But I do think people expect their elected officials and those running for office to be responsible with their financial matters.”
Barbara Kane, the director of Operation Clean Government, agrees. Being current on one’s obligations, to the city or otherwise, is not a prerequisite for public office, she says, but it’s something voters should take into account when deciding who they want at the helm of city government.
Candidates for public office, Kane argues, should at least start off with a clean slate as a demonstration of good faith to their prospective constituents.
“You anticipate your elected officials should be upstanding citizens,” she says. Owing back taxes or fees is “falling down in that category.”
John Marion, the director of Common Cause, another statewide government watchdog group, says that especially in these challenging fiscal times, voters should look upon overdue balances carried by would-be public officials as a red flag. As candidates, he says, they’re asking voters for the power to make financial decisions on their behalf, yet “these are people who haven’t lived up to their own fiduciary responsibilities.”
In addition to Lima and Brien, five other candidates had bills delinquent enough for the city to begin tacking on interest penalties.
• Incumbent City Councilwoman Stella Brien – Al Brien’s daughter-in-law. City records say Stella Brien owes $381 in motor vehicle taxes, including $39.71 in penalties.
Stella and her husband, State Rep. Jon D. Brien (not currently a candidate for any office), are also listed as the joint owners of 521 South Main St., a property on which they reportedly owe some $338 in overdue water and sewer fees.
The records say they also owe $553 in overdue taxes on business equipment associated with Brien & Brien LLP, their law firm in the city, headquartered at 62 Hamlet Ave.
• Jeffrey Hardy, a newcomer running for School Committee, owes $134 in motor vehicle taxes and penalties. He also owes roughly $135 in delinquent water fees on his home.
• Philip E. Labrecque, a newcomer running for City Council, is $90.59 in arrears on motor vehicle taxes.
• Michael Moniz, a candidate for council, owes the city some $250 in tangible property taxes, some delinquent since 2006. City officials say he owes the money on business equipment associated with a barber shop he used to run.
• School Committee Chairman Marc Dubois, seeking a seat on the Council, is $80.06 overdue on motor vehicle taxes and owes another $69.23 for water at 301 Brookhaven Lane.
Two other candidates were listed as past due for relatively small amounts of motor vehicle taxes, but there was no indication from city records that they were late enough to have been assessed any penalties yet. They were Anthony Gabriele, a newcomer seeking a seat on the School Committee, and Kathryn LeBlanc, who’s running for council. They both owe motor vehicle taxes — Gabriele, $32, LeBlanc, $8.
Several other candidates, including Councilman Chris Beauchamp and Council President John Ward, were listed as “past due” for certain accounts – Beauchamp for about $140 in water and sewer fees and Ward for a $69 sewer bill. Similarly, Allen Rivers, a newcomer vying for School Committee, owes $138.46 in sewer fees.
But city officials said they could not be certain their accounts were delinquent because receivables are held in a bank “lock box” for a time before they are credited to the city’s books. Most of those bills went out in August and might not have been credited to the city’s books yet.