WOONSOCKET – It’s never too late to say you’re sorry – for calling in the Budget Commission, that is.
As they gathered for their first public debate at Chan’s Tuesday, nearly every member of the City Council who voted for the state-appointed panel in 2012 said they regretted the decision. Even council challengers who had nothing to do with the decision to seat the panel said the commission must go.
“We need to tell them to stop treating our council like dirt,” said challenger Kathryn M. Dumais. “We need to take back Woonsocket.”
Councilman Marc Dubois excoriated the commission for working in a political vacuum and showing little sensitivity for the impact of its decisions on city residents. The panel’s cornerstone achievement was the imposition of a 5-year plan to eliminate the city’s deficits, in part by foisting a series of tax hikes on residents that will continue for four more years. The process began in July with hikes averaging a whopping 21 percent – not including a hefty supplemental bill for 2013.
“They don’t care what our vote is or what our opinion is on an issue,” said Dubois.
Councilman Robert Moreau characterized his support of the commission as “the worst vote I ever took.” But he likened it to “having a gun to my head” because senior political colleagues warned him the city would go bankrupt unless the commission came in to wrest hold of the purse strings from elected officials.
“I would have never voted to give my authority away as a councilor to a group of people I don’t know and I don’t trust,” asserted challenger Jeffrey Belknap.
The only two sitting councilmen who voted against the Budget Commission hastened to remind spectators of the fact. A frequently restive crowd of roughly 130 people crammed into Chan’s for the event, alternatively cheering and jeering in reaction to candidates’ remarks. Occasionally, moderator Jeff Gamache was forced to warn them to mind their manners, or to save their applause for the end of a candidate’s statements.
“I am proud to say I voted against the Budget Commission,” said Councilman Roger G. Jalette Sr. “My biggest fear has come true. They did not take our ability to pay into consideration. We ended up with a big supplemental on our properties and cars.”
Councilman Albert G. Brien Jr., the only other councilman who voted against the commission, all but declared war on the panel. “We need to challenge the state and we need to challenge this Budget Commission,” he said. “We haven’t pushed back hard enough.”
Anita McGuire-Forcier, a sitting member of the School Committee who is running for council, stopped short of endorsing the budget commission. But she said the reality was that, without it, schools wouldn’t have had the cash on hand to pay teachers or turn on the lights in September 2012 if the council hadn’t passed a resolution allowing the state to seat the panel. The commission exercised its power under the law to request an advance of some $12 million in aid to the city to make sure schools were open that fall, and the panel staged an encore of the process this year to make sure delinquent accounts to vital vendors, including student transportation contractors, were satisfied.
McGuire-Forcier suggested it was disingenuous now to attack the panel that offered the only solution for keeping schools open and avoiding municipal bankruptcy.
“The schools had no cash – none,” she said. “I’m not going to lie to you. We were stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
The only other issued the contenders poured as much rhetoric into was the city’s reputation as an unwelcoming place for new business. Some also said investors are turned off by the city’s negative image and called for a makeover, including a loosening of the regulatory chokehold of the Zoning Board of Review.
“We are perceived as being anti-business because of the zoning laws we have” said Garrett S. Mancieri, a commercial real estate agent who recently broke away from an established agency to go solo on Main Street. “The reputation of our city is not good and we need to redefine our city.”
Challenger Richard Fagnant broke with the more frequent incantations of doom and gloom, saying the city’s a fine place to live and work. The problem, he says, is that too few people know about the city’s more virtuous assets and local government does too little positive marketing.
“They don’t know what we have because we don’t tell them,” he said. “We don’t have cheerleaders.”
The key to righting the ship of entrepreneurial commerce is selling what’s unique about the city, Fagnant added, saying, “We have to be different than the rest of the cities and towns.”
Melissa Murray, proprietor of a recent Market Square startup called The Opulent Squid, sounded a similar theme. She said the city has all the necessary ingredients to blend into a formula for success – including a picturesque river, a charmingly historic downtown and a budding economy built on arts and entertainment. The latter, Murray said, could become a leading driver of an economic resurgence for the city.
“We have the tools to get there but I don’t think we’re using them to our maximum potential,” she said. “There’s no reason why we can’t be a destination city.”
Christopher Roberts, also a member of the School Committee, said many candidates talk about implementing business-friendly policies, but he was among the very few with real day-to-day experience. His family has run a lubricating oil business for years.
But Roberts also offered up another avenue or relief for the city’s ailing economy. He said numerous agencies, some with directors who earn six-figure salaries, are getting a free ride on property taxes because they’re unjustifiably classified as non-profits. He mentioned Seven Hills Foundation by name. The mental health treatment network, based largely in Massachusetts, owns 30 Cumberland St., which is assessed at nearly $2.3 million but pays nothing in taxes, according to Roberts.
“It’s time for those people to start contributing,” he said. “There’s hundreds of thousands of dollars sitting out there.”
Fifteen contenders, including seven incumbents and eight challengers, will appear on the primary ballot Oct. 8. All but one, City Council President John Ward, participated in Tuesday’s “Meet the Candidates” forum at Chan’s, sponsored by radio station WNRI and MyWoonsocket.com, a news “aggregator” site devoted exclusively to local affairs. Despite his absence, moderator Gamache read a statement from Ward, who was unable to attend due to a prior commitment, the sponsors said.
In addition to Dumais, Dubois, Moreau, Jalette, Brien, McGuire-Forcier, Mancieri, Fagnant, Belknap, Murray, Roberts and Ward, the contestants in the primary are incumbents Christopher A. Beauchamp, Daniel M. Gendron and challengers Eric “Chip” Cartier. Four candidates for mayor will also be on the ballot, including incumbent Mayor Leo T. Fontaine, seeking a third term, State Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (D-Woonsocket), political newcomer Dave Fisher and Michael Moniz.
On Tuesday, the mayoral contenders sparred at Chan’s following a session devoted to the council races. The Call is sponsoring another mayoral debate on Oct. 4 in Harris Hall from 7 to 9 p.m.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo