Undaunted, Chafee pushes bills to address city pensions
Lincoln Chafee didn’t take it as a kick in the teeth, although some saw the advice coming out of the treasurer’s office as aimed directly at the governor’s efforts to give municipalities the legislative tools to avert bankruptcy.
Tuesday, at the end of a three-hour pension workshop at the Knight Campus of CCRI, the treasurer’s lawyer told the assembly of municipal finance officials to remember two words, “legislation last.”
The comment from Mark Dingley comes at a time when Chafee is pushing his legislative package lifting state mandates and giving distressed municipalities the ability to suspend cost of living increases that threaten bankruptcy. Thursday evening, Chafee, followed by a lineup of mayors, appeared before the Senate Finance Committee to underscore the severity of the situation and the need to do something now. After testifying, Chafee was asked about Dingley’s comment and whether he thought it would hurt chances for passage of the legislative package.
“I don’t think Mark understands the magnitude of the deficits facing municipalities,” Chafee said. The governor emphasized that his bills would give municipalities the ability to choose what they think best, letting local leaders make the decisions. Chafee didn’t offer a view on the chances of the package being approved.
Daniel Beardsley, president of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, feels legislators are already questioning the governor’s package and Dingley’s comments give them more reason to back away from the governor’s proposal. Without the legislation, Beardsley predicted three or four municipalities would file for bankruptcy, sending shivers through the state economy and scaring businesses that might otherwise come to the state and bring new jobs with them. A spokeswoman for Gina Raimondo said yesterday the treasurer favors the governor’s legislation and that Dingley urged municipalities to thoroughly examine options before taking legislative action. “The treasurer is fully committed to working with the municipalities on ailing plans,” said Joy Fox from Raimondo’s office. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung thinks the legislation is vital, although he thinks most municipalities will use only a few of the tools. “It gives them the flexibility to manage their budget,” he said. As for Cranston, Fung is looking for the power to suspend cost of living increases in the city closed fire and police pension. That pension fund is 15.8 percent funded.
Thursday’s Senate Finance Committee hearing had the feel of an impending storm. Scores of firefighters, who oppose many of Chafee’s measures because it would negate benefits they feel they properly won in negotiations, wearing black T-shirts, filled virtually every spectator seat in the room. Camera crews and reporters leaned against walls and, with bright lights casting dark shadows, videotaped proceedings. The door to the room was blocked with people looking to get in.
Tempers were in check and there was no jeering, or for that matter, cheering.
In somber tones, and referring to a chart showing cuts in state aid to Providence, Pawtucket, Woonsocket and West Warwick in recent years, Chafee illustrated how municipalities will have no alternative but dramatic increases in taxes to avert bankruptcy.
Fung told the committee municipal employees have helped Cranston address its budget but urged passage of the legislation to provide the “leverage” needed to make additional adjustments.
Mayor Scott Avedisian said Warwick is particularly interested in two of the governor’s seven bills. He cited the school spending accountability act and a waiver to the maintenance of effort for municipal funding. He urged for a uniform budgeting process so that municipalities can draft a comprehensive budget without getting a school budget late in the process or not at all. He also pointed out if a school department runs a deficit, as has happened in Warwick, what the department spent, including the deficit that must be made up by the municipality, becomes the starting point for the next budget and the maintenance of effort. Chafee’s waiver would put an end to such “windfalls.”
Chafee said his legislative package is the result of asking mayors and town managers what they want and need to avert bankruptcy and improve financial stability. He called it “a bottoms up” effort, adding, “what we don’t want are radical decisions by un-elected people.”
Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien said he is working with the unions and looking to address the issues cooperatively.
“Give us those tools,” he said. “We’re not going to circumvent the process.”