Chafee unveils plan for state’s distressed communities; legislative outlook uncertain
Flanked by mayors and town managers from around the state, Governor Lincoln Chafee unveiled a plan this afternoon for helping Rhode Island’s most fiscally troubled communities. He held up a copy of the Providence Journal — featuring headlines about Woonsocket’s cash crunch and Providence’s bond downgrade — to underscore the gravity of the situation.
Speaking in the council chambers at Pawtucket City Hall, Chafee said:
We have some choices in Rhode Island. We can let the communities go into bankruptcy, we can let them raise their property taxes up, up, up – that drive businesses out – or we can take action. I prefer the last one.
The governor said four communities — Providence, Pawtucket, Woonsocket, and West Warwick — are in sufficiently rough shape to meet his newly created designation of being “highly distressed communities.” Some parts of his seven-point plan would apply, if approved by the General Assembly, just to those highly distressed cities and towns.
More broadly, Chafee’s plan would allow some communities to suspend COLAs in local pensions; to reduce disability pensions (from 66.3 to 50 percent of salary) for employees who can still work; and cap local pension benefits in line with those offered by the state-run Municipal Employees Retirement System
It also offer relief from 11 state mandates for the four highly distressed communities, including:
— Reducing accidental disability pensions for public safety employees, to between 50 and 66.3 percent, instead of the current range of 66.3 to 100 percent;
— Ending a current requirement that public safety collective bargaining agreements remain in effect after expiration throughout the binding arbitration process;
— Suspending educational incentive pay for municipal police;
— Requiring municipal chief executive approval of school budgets and contracts;
— Consolidating municipal and school administrative functions;
— Ending a requirement for increases in teacher pay according to seniority;
— Suspending a requirement that schools employ “nurse-teachers” and permiting certified nurses to perform those functions.
— Suspend the use of school bus monitors for children in grades K-5 and allowing volunteers to replace them.
Municipal governments in highly distressed communities (HDCs) would be required to balance the financial impact of any collective bargaining agreement against the community’s ability to pay. Municipal leaders would also be able to pass an ordinance “restricting the scope of binding arbitration for public safety employees.”
Chafee says he believes the Finance chairs of the House and Senate will introduce the legislation for his plan. The outlook in the General Assembly remains uncertain.
Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed offered this statement:
We look forward to a thorough vetting of Governor Chafee’s proposals regarding cities and towns through the committee process. The Senate and House are committed to continue working with the Administration to address the financial challenges the cities and towns face.
Providence Mayor Angel Taveras was among the municipal leaders holding out hope the legislature will embrace the governor’s plan. Asked about the timing with his city’s cash-crunch, he said, “The General Assembly has shown when it wants to act quickly it can.”
Taveras asked for “tools” similar to those outlined by Chafee when he testified last year before House Finance. That now seems like an eternity ago, he says, since time seems to be running out for fixing Providence’s finances.