WOONSOCKET – It was another year dominated by the city’s teetering financial condition, but that wasn’t the only big story of 2012.
A World War I monument that most people never thought twice about – if they were aware of it at all – suddenly gained new notoriety when it was attacked by a Wisconsin atheist group. The governor’s determination to spare an accused killer from the death penalty triggered an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. And the career of a rising political star was unexpectedly nipped in the bud.
Here’s a recap of the Top 10 from 2012, in reverse order:
10.) Fifth Avenue Elementary is Closed
After 102 years in operation, the Fifth Avenue School was closed by the Woonsocket Education Department. About 200 children were transferred to Coleman School in a move that was widely opposed by parents, but the school probably never had a chance. School officials not only portrayed the school as an antiquated firetrap, they argued that closing it would save the cash-strapped district nearly $200,000.
9.) Homeless Men Protest Conditions
Homelessness isn’t a new issue in Woonsocket, but 2012 may be the year when it became apparent that resources for homeless men were in short supply. For years, shelter services have been available for homeless women and couples with children, but not unattached men.
The closest thing was Harvest Community Church, which allows single men to sleep indoors on cots during the winter. This spring’s seasonal flourish of makeshift campsites on the banks of the Blackstone River had an almost militant feel to them, as resident squatters protested the conditions they were forced to endure.
A new shelter has since opened on South Main Street and another is poised to open on Burnside Avenue early in 2013.
8.) Vanishing Industrial Landmarks
After two landmarks from the industrial era fell to acts of God and Mother Nature in 2011, one of the largest mills in the city succumbed to the will of man in 2012. The French Worsted complex was one of the most significant factory sites left in a city that often calls itself the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the French Worsted mill once employed hundreds in the manufacture of high-grade textiles, but in recent years it had lain mostly vacant. Unable to market the property after the state legislature abolished the historic tax credit program, the owner decided it would be easier to sell the property without buildings. A strip mall is planned for the site.
7.) Rep. Brien Hits a Wall
Even his detractors praised State Rep. Jon D. Brien as a masterful debater and a deft hand with a sound bite, but the conservative Democrat’s rising star crashed when he was defeated by a novice, Woonsocket firefighter and now Representative-elect Stephen Casey. When Casey upset Brien in a primary, Brien pressed on with a write-in campaign, only to see voters hand him another loss in the general election. A strident advocate of pension reform and smaller government, Brien blamed “union bosses” for bankrolling his defeat by one of their own. Casey, a union firefighter, says he represents all of District 50, not just its union members.
6.) U.S. Supreme Court Asked to Intervene in Death Penalty Case
It’s been over two years since Jason Wayne Pleau of Woonsocket allegedly shot to death gas station manager David Main during a fatal robbery outside Citizens Bank. But 2012 saw the legal feud between Gov. Lincoln Chafee and U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha over Pleau’s custody reach the U.S. Supreme Court. Chafee wants Pleau returned to state custody to prevent federal prosecutors from imposing the death penalty on him should he be convicted of Main’s murder. He argues that a lower court erred when it ordered Pleau into federal custody under a law known as the Interstate Agreement on Detainers. Should Chafee prevail, it could change the way court all over the country apply the IAD.
5.) Abolition of the Elective School Committee
While Armageddon failed to arrive as predicted, 2012 did mark the end of the Woonsocket School Committee as we know it. Voters unexpectedly approved a measure to end the practice of seating school officials by election. Passage of the measure instantly transformed the existing school committee into a lame duck panel whose members couldn’t run for re-election in 2013 even if they wanted to. Members of the School Committee will forever after be appointed by the mayor and the City Council.
4.) Atheists Attack the Monument
In a city desperately in need of a morale-booster, nothing galvanized the civic spirit like the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s attack on Place Jolicoeur, a monument dedicated to four soldiers who died in World Wars I and II. The Wisconsin-based group has threatened to sue the city on the grounds that a Latin cross atop to the stone marker violates the constitutional ban on government-sponsored religion. Rather than cave to demands for the cross’s removal, civic leaders and city residents rallied, raising thousands to defend the cross in court, if necessary. So far, the threat hasn’t materialized.
3.) Landmark Cast Adrift by Steward Health Care
The fate of the city’s No. 2 employer and only hospital, Landmark Medical Center, was thrown into limbo – again – when Steward Health Care of Boston terminated negotiations to purchase the facility in September. Steward was the latest in a string of would-be suitors for the struggling hospital, but no one had been at the table longer or won as many concessions to make the deal palatable. Steward’s withdrawal paved the way for an earlier browser, Prime Healthcare Services of California, to formally kick Landmark’s tires and look under the hood. State regulators are expecting a formal application detailing Primes $60 million offer for Landmark Medical Center early next year.
2.) State Budget Commission Takes Over
While the city has been ailing financially since state aid evaporated during the Great Recession of 2008, the appointment of the state Budget Commission in May marked a turning point. Brought on by the legislature’s refusal to approve a hefty supplemental tax bill sought by city officials, the commission assumed responsibility for all spending decisions normally reserved for elected officials. From its inception, it has demanded regular cash-flow reports from the finance department and has exerted unilateral control over the city’s pocketbook, casting final approval for bills, bids and other financial transactions. After some six months on the job, the panel has said concessions from unions and retirees on health care benefits, pension COLAs and other personnel cuts are central to its strategy for eliminating a $15 million projected deficit.
1.) Woonsocket’s Fiscal Cliff
Of course, the Budget Commission is part of a broader story about the fragile condition of the city’s finances. The city has been deficit-spending for over three years, only to see the gap balloon over time. City officials claim they’ve been blindsided by misleading financial forecasts from the education department, while school officials blame the state for starving the district with unrealistically stingy financial reimbursements for mandatory programs. Though efforts to prod the state into boosting aid continue, the city is looking at cash-crunch deja vu all over again this spring unless it can find a way to close the budget gap, and soon.