Mayors join Chafee in calling for higher focus on municipalities
Governor Lincoln Chafee and mayors from around the state warned today that Rhode Island will face dire consequences if the General Assembly doesn’t provide financial relief to struggling cities and towns.
Emerging from a closed two-hour session at the Statehouse, Chafee said the issue of municipal finance is a front and center crisis.
Asked about his hopes for legislative help for cities like Providence, the governor said, “We’re back to the basic issue of suspension of COLAs,” in locally managed pensions, “and a way that communities cannot grant higher benefits than are already capped by the state MERS [Municipal Employees Retirement System] program.”
Chafee called the gathering of a governor and municipal officials signficant in itself.
“This year despite it being an election year, should be the year of the cities and towns,” he said. “We cannot have East Providences and Woonsockets and Coventrys and other towns being read about across the country in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times — national publications — that are going to be a detriment to the economy of Rhode Island. It’s just, we’ve got to address it.”
Although the mayors talked about local pensions and cutting state mandates, the exact plan of attack for addressing their concerns remained mostly undefined. Chafee says he wants the city and town leaders to think about what was discussed and get back to him.
Several expressed a belief that growing attention about municipal finance — like a recent report by Moody’s — will gin up legislative support.
One of the more interesting exchanges came when Channel 10’s Bill Rappleye asked whether the public might look favorably on the approach used in Central Falls — where receiver Robert Flanders was able to hammer the city and its unions toward a more stable future.
Cumberland Mayor Daniel McKee could barely contain himself as Providence’s Angel Taveras and Johnston’s Joseph Polisena spoke before offering a visceral reaction to the question.
We’re getting entertained by these bankruptcy prospects. So we see, you know, “Star Wars I,” well, “Bankruptcy I.” Well, yeah, that’s great. Let’s go see — when’s the sequel coming out — “Bankruptcy II”? Bankruptcy is not good.
I represent taxpayers in my community. If my community went bankrupt, I would lose $2.5 billion of real estate value in my town. Am I representing the people that are in my town, properly, by doing that? This sequel event, you know — let’s wait for “Bankruptcy II,” “Bankruptcy III,” “Bankruptcy IV” — that is not good for the people that we represent, Bill.
Chafee and the mayors put much of the blame for the cities and towns’ plight on the loss of almost $200 million in local aid over recent years. Without naming Chafee’s predecessor, they faulted Don Carcieri and to a lesser extent, the General Assembly.
Whether the legislature ultimately offers a significant response to the mayors’ concerns promises to be the story of the session.