WOONSOCKET — In a rare Sunday session, the City Council voted 5-2 last night to ask the state bring in a budget commission to take over the city’s finances.
Pro-commission councilors blamed lawmakers for forcing their hand by failing to okay the city’s request for a 13 percent supplemental tax bill last week.
State Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt single-handedly deep-sixed the enabling legislation that would have allowed the city to levy the supplemental tax bill, after voicing support for the appointment of a receiver to handle the city’s affairs instead of a budget commission. But last night’s session proved the political divide over receiver versus budget commission exists not just between state lawmakers and city officials, but among members of the City Council themselves.
With about 30 spectators in the audience, many of them members of the Woonsocket Taxpayer Coalition, Councilman Albert G. Brien got a round of applause when he made a motion to petition the state, not for a budget commission, but an emergency receiver.
Only Brien and Councilman Roger G. Jalette voted in favor of the motion, just as they were the only councilors to oppose a budget commission.
Though the pro-receiver motion was defeated, Brien argued that the powers of a budget commission are not sweeping enough for the city to gain control of the deeper structural problems in the budget, including unfunded pension liabilities and health care costs.
He said he also finds it offensive to turn financial control of the city over to a state-appointed commission, because the state is largely to blame for the city’s problems.
“I find it reprehensible that the people who are responsible for creating the problems are now going to be in charge of solving them,” he said.
Mayor Leo T. Fontaine, who seldom finds much common ground with Brien, said the councilman was right to blame the state for causing the city’s problems. Cumulatively, Fontaine said the state had reduced aid to Woonsocket by some $30 million since 2008 or so. Meanwhile, the state hasn’t raised taxes in two years.
“They’ve done that on the backs of cities and towns,” he said. “It’s frustrating to be asking the state for support.”
While Baldelli-Hunt has been criticized for flip-flopping on the supplemental tax bill, ultimately rejecting it without warning at the last minute, the WTC issued a public “thank you” to her for her actions. Jalette echoed those sentiments last night, defending Baldelli-Hunt’s right to change her mind.
“We cannot tax our way out of this situation,” Jalette said. “The taxpayers of the city of Woonsocket cannot afford it.”
But Jalette upped the political ante with an attack on Council President John Ward for backing supplemental taxes. As a supporter of the special tax, Jalette told Ward that he should step down as council president because he would show bias as a member of the budget commission. Under state statute, the mayor and council president would be the only two local members of such a panel.
As an opponent of supplemental taxes, Jalette said that he should be council president so that he can serve on the budget commission and provide the panel with some “balance.”
Ward said later in the meeting he has no intentions of stepping down.
“The simple answer,” he said, “is no.”
Like others in the voting majority, Ward said he does not relish the prospect of a budget committee taking over. But he said that because of the legislature’s actions, or lack of them, there is no longer any viable plan for raising revenue to pay teachers after the middle of June. A budget commission will be able to speed up the last scheduled infusion of state aid, approximately $4 million, to make the payroll, but after that all bets are off.
“We’re still left with what do when the second week of June comes and they run out of cash again,” said Ward. “I don’t think we should be breaking faith without our employees. We would be breaking that contract by not paying them their last paycheck of the year on the second week of June.”
The nub of the city’s fiscal problem is a $10 million deficit on the ledgers of WED, having overspent its budget to such an extent that it no longer has any cash on hand. It’s about $6 million in arrears to major vendors, including transportation providers.
The supplemental tax would have raised about $6.6 million to begin closing the hole without heaping the entire burden of repairing the deficit on taxpayers in one year. Had the legislature approved the measure, costing the average taxpayer about $350, the city would also have been able to borrow $3.2 million in advance of tax receipts, smoothing cash flow through next fiscal year, when the state is expected to pick up significantly more of the WED’s budget.
Ward said a budget commission would likely consider not just more taxes to restore fiscal stability to the city, it will probably look for cuts in personnel, contractual concessions and roll back services, possibly at the Senior Center and Harris Public Library. It would also have the power to call in a receiver if feels one is necessary.
The only enumerated power in state law a receiver has that a budget commission doesn’t is the power to push the city into municipal bankruptcy.
In a sentiment typical of thosee who approved the resolution petitioning the state for a budget commission, Councilman Robert Moreau, a freshman on the panel, struck an almost mournful tone.
“I was hoping to be a leader that could see this through with the rest of you,” Moreau said. “I feel that’s been taken away from us.