WOONSOCKET — When he was a student at Woonsocket High School, long before anybody ever dreamed of school uniforms, Mayor Leo T. Fontaine had his own dress code.
Fellow classmates recall he routinely wore a tie during his high school days. By then, the youngest of seven siblings in a musically-inclined family had already been the church organist at Sacred Heart Parish for several years, a role he’s never given up. At 44, he still blushes when he hears a certain kind of joke.
When he first ran for City Council, at the age of 24, a local columnist proclaimed him the new “golden boy” of city government, the latest in a string of promising young adults seeking public office. He won his first term handily and, in the elections of the future, he would invariably poll at or near the top of the pack. Unless you count the time he ran for student council in the ninth grade, he’s never lost an election.
Suddenly, however, he’s fighting for his political life after a stunning wake-up call at the hands of his challenger, state Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (D-Dist. 49, Woonsocket), who trounced him in the primary by a margin of better than 3-1.
It’s called the Budget Commission.
Fontaine says state law has made him a member of a panel whose role is something like that of a doctor, ministering to the sick patient of municipal government. Trouble is, the cure for the city’s ailing treasury – markedly higher taxes, pension rollbacks and cuts in employee benefits – has been as painful as the disease.
“The Budget Commission is one of those necessary evils that, as part of the state law, I and the City Council president have become part of,” says Fontaine. “We’ve had to make some very unpopular decisions in order to balance this budget. Nobody likes the difficult decisions that are being made, but it’s part of our responsibility and we’ve done it to the best of our ability.”
The roots and rationale of commission oversight, and the mandatory role elected officials play in it, has not been easy for Fontaine to distill into a catchy sound bite. But he says that if it weren’t for cuts in state aid, the fiscal crisis that opened the door to the commission would have never existed.
“We’ve worked extremely hard over the last four years to deal with significant cuts we’ve received from the state,” he says. “We’ve balanced each of the city budgets we introduced, but unfortunately, we’ve had significant deficits on the school side primarily because of the slashing of funds that happened at the state level.”
Fontaine says the commission has made significant strides in pulling the city back from the cliff of bankruptcy and beginning to chart a course toward renewed fiscal health. But it’s unflashy, tedious work that often goes unnoticed – or it’s hotly controversial when it is. Fontaine said it’s also diluted his attention to the business of getting re-elected.
Issues spawned by the campaign have led Fontaine to repeatedly assert that being mayor should be taken seriously as a full-time job, but he says the responsibilities of the commission have made the position even more grueling.
“With all the work gone on behind the scenes, just the negotiations with all the bargaining units and retirees, that has been months and months of work, hours a day on many days going late into the night,” he says. “We’ve made great progress, but it was an awful lot of work, and being on the commission hasn’t been a fun process or a glamorous process, but it’s been necessary to get our city through this difficult time.”
Thanks to some recent changes to the City Charter approved by voters, the term of office for mayor that begins in 2013 will last three years, a year longer than usual. The idea is to synchronize municipal and state election cycles to save the city some money.
The next mayor will also play a bigger role in influencing policy at the Woonsocket Education Department. The reason: When the current terms of School Committee members expire, their successors will no longer be elected by popular vote. They will be chosen by the mayor, with the consent of the City Council.
DESPITE THE lopsided majority of votes scored by his opponent in the primary, Fontaine said he still believes he can – and deserves to – win another term.
Beyond stabilizing the city’s finances, Fontaine said some of his administration’s greatest achievements have been attracting new businesses and persuading existing businesses to stay here and expand.
American Cord & Webbing, a manufacturer of high-tech fastener and ties for military and industrial applications, and Technic Inc., which produces metal powders for a variety of niche markets, both grew significantly on his watch. Supreme Dairy, a wholesale restaurant supplier, was lured here from Warwick.
“A lot of people may not see these things because they’re off the beaten path,” says Fontaine. “But we have done a great job in attracting new business to our city. Additionally, we have worked extremely hard to make the Landmark sale a reality. It’s been an awful lot of hard work over these last four years dealing with all the different processes that have taken place to bring this to fruition, but we took a very active role and we’re very, very happy to see this happen.”
The administration is ready to talk to Prime Healthcare Services, the buyer of Landmark, about building new medical offices nearby. The California-based owner of 23 hospitals in five states has pledged to spend millions on physician recruitment.
Fontaine says he’s the only candidate who’s put forth a detailed plan to eliminate blight, rebuild the “gateways” to the city, and develop a new industrial park to support CVS/Caremark, a facility that could create 500 new jobs.
A lifelong city resident, Fontaine and his wife, Luz, have two children, Will, 14, and Juliette, 10. Both are musically inclined, a trait that seems to run in the Fontaine family.
The mayor has been the church organist at Sacred Heart since he was 12 years old. His father, the late Richard Fontaine, worked as a jack-of-all-trades at the Woonsocket Call for 50 years before retiring, but he was also a musical moonlighter. Fontaine’s administration has championed arts in education and economic development. The Beacon Charter School recognized him for protecting the school’s charter when it was threatened by the state Board of Regents several years ago.
First elected mayor in 2009, Fontaine previously served 16 years on the City Council, many of them as its president.
Though local elections are nonpartisan, Fontaine is a Republican, making him something of an anomaly in overwhelmingly Democratic Woonsocket.
After studying at the Community College of Rhode Island, Fontaine’s early career experiences were in the financial services industry. He once worked at Dunn & Bradstreet as a business analyst. He’s worked for American Express and Boston Financial. Before becoming mayor, he last worked for a family-owned business that does genealogic research associated with probate law.
He’s says he never ran for mayor because he needed a job.
“I did it for the love of the community,” says Fontaine.
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