Council supports bills to revise pensions
The Town Council this week adopted a resolution supporting seven General Assembly bills which, if passed, would enable distressed Rhode Island municipalities to ease their pension costs by revising or canceling the terms of their collective bargaining agreements. The bills would not affect Jamestown’s town or school employees to any significant extent because the powers granted by the bills are limited to “highly distressed” municipalities.
The council met on April 2. The legislation was submitted to the General Assembly last month by Governor Lincoln Chafee, who briefly attended the council meeting in support of the resolution, which was submitted to the council by his office.
Chafee wants all of Rhode Island’s municipal councils to adopt the resolution. He acknowledged that Jamestown isn’t among the communities whose financial distress has forced him to propose what promises to be divisive legislation, explaining, “This is a unity request for communities to support the Woonsockets and Central Falls of the state.”
Woonsocket, Chafee pointed out, was poised that very same night to vote on a supplemental property-tax assessment to bridge the town’s $10 million budget gap and avoid bankruptcy. (The 13-percent levy passed by a 6-1 vote.) The situation in Woonsocket is just the latest crisis to hit a Rhode Island municipality, and “that’s what we’re trying to avoid” with the authorities the governor’s legislation would grant.
The bills would reduce the disability benefits for people in the Municipal Employees Retirement System if they can “perform other employment”; limit the benefits provided by locally administered pensions to those provided by the state pension system; require all school districts to submit their budgets for approval by the state’s education commissioner; and allow “highly distressed communities to eliminate mandates [from] collective bargaining agreements and binding arbitration.”
Councilor Bill Murphy told Chafee that the economic disasters befalling other towns “become our problem” if they affect funding for state assistance to municipalities. Murphy added that the legislation “gives communities the tools they need to solve their problems.”
Referring to the privately administered pension plan for Jamestown’s Police Department, Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said that the legislation should not have the effect of “making private pension plans any more generous than the municipal plans already in place. [Finance Director] Tina Collins has asked our actuary to check on this.”
Another resolution referring to General Assembly legislation was also passed by the council. The resolution, which was submitted to the council by resident Andrew Yates, seeks town support for House and Senate bills allowing municipalities to put before their voters a constitutional amendment promoting “transparency and good governance [by] preventing conflicts of interest in the course of elected and appointed public officials performing their public duties.”
The council also accepted for consideration a letter from Providence City Council President Michael Solomon, who is asking the council to consider supporting a House bill that would allow municipalities to assess a “fee” on the assessed value of taxexempt properties (with the exception of properties owned by religious institutions).
“Recent studies indicate,” Solomon wrote in his letter to the council, “that the costs of providing municipal services to tax-exempts ranges from 25 to 35 percent of the total taxes that [taxexempt] institutions would owe if they were not tax-exempt. If this bill passes, cities and towns could finally acquire an alternative revenue stream to mitigate their dependence on property taxes.”
In other business, the council:
• Accepted a School Committee resolution supporting the elimination of the bus-monitor mandate, which the committee opposes as an unnecessary and unfunded mandate. The committee is seeking the introduction of legislation that would allow school districts to require bus monitors on a discretionary basis. Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser told the council that the legislation probably wouldn’t be introduced this year because of the upcoming elections, but may be during the following year.
• Learned from Town Planner Lisa Bryer that the town has not submitted its Community Development Block Grant requests for council review because she was still in discussions with Tina Collins and Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero on the proposed $1.3 million request for affordable housing acquisition under the State Housing and Rehabilitation Program. The request is one of 12 on the draft list, and it will be up to the council to prioritize the requests for submission to the state by April 20.
• Accepted a letter from the state Department of Environmental Management requesting Jamestown’s participation in the 2012 Clean Watersheds Needs Survey for Rhode Island. The survey, which is held every four years under the federal Clean Water Act, is a nationwide assessment of the capital requirements to meet the original intent of the law; namely, to restore all navigable waters to “fishable and swimmable” quality. Keiser was tasked with responding to the survey questions.