City Council, residents say no to doubled trash fees

City Council, residents say no to doubled trash fees

But final authority rests with Budget Commission

WOONSOCKET – Once, the service was considered a duty of municipal government, paid for by property taxes much the way the city paves roads and cares for parks.

But just four short years ago, Woonsocket residents started paying extra for trash collection – a $96 fee designed to offset the cost of having the waste hauled away.

And now, residents may see the fee doubled by officials desperate to raise new revenue and avoid bankruptcy.

Residents voiced anger over the plan Monday night and the City Council showed unanimous opposition to the unpopular idea, but the vote may mean little to the state-appointed Budget Commission scheduled to take up the city’s fiscal plan for 2014 at a meeting this Friday.

If approved, the trash fee per dwelling unit would be raised from $96 to $192.

Council President John Ward proposed the resolution on behalf of the budget board at a special council meeting this week but later voted against it. The change, which is part of the commission’s five-year plan aimed at resolving Woonsocket’s fiscal crisis, is slated to bring $1 million in new revenue to the cash-strapped city each year.

“Whereas the Woonsocket Budget Commission has established a five-year plan that is designed to provide for a more stable financial situation for the city of Woonsocket,” the proposal stated, the City Council could “support the inclusion of an increase in trash collection fees to $192 per household as an important part of the five-year financial stability plan.”

But residents, many of whom carried signs that read “No more taxes/fees for the homeowner. Please stop,”, shouted “no way” at the somewhat rowdy Monday gathering Harris Hall. With around 50 people, including many angry, and several outspoken taxpayers watching from the audience, council members called the proposal “absurd” and “egregious.”

“To me, this an attempt because they don’t know where else to go,” said Councilor Roger Jalette. “And because they don’t know where else to go they’re starting to get ridiculous.”

Councilor Robert Moreau said he did not feel the commission had received enough information on the topic and that he was not confident the resolution would be the only call for additional charges related to the city’s trash services.

“They’re going to get us to vote on this and then they’re going to do pay-as you-throw anyway,” said Moreau. “They might do them both for all we know.”

The commission has been considering a system proposed by WasteZero in which residents would need to purchase special, more costly bags for their waste to encourage conservation. The city pays Rhode Island Resource Recovery to dump the waste at a cost of $32 per ton. The commission has not yet indicated if the WasteZero proposal will be part of their final plan.

Meanwhile, a bill authorizing the city to raise an additional $2.5 million by taxing residents in excess of the 4 percent state cap sits in the General Assembly waiting for the Woonsocket delegation to take action. The legislators, however, have indicated they will not move the bill forward until they’re confident other elements of the five-year plan, including concessions from the city’s unions, will become reality. With negotiations faltering, the commission has passed several resolutions that would make new collective bargaining agreements take effect July 1 if alternative agreements can not be reached, but the action will likely be challenged in court.

“I think this proposal by the Budget Commission is egregious,” said Councilor Brien. “I have some other words that I could describe it with, but I’ll pass on those.”

The council initially voted to table the trash issue, but looking over the frustrated crowd anxious to be heard, Brien withdrew his vote and the council unanimously agreed to reconsider the matter.

“We listened to you politely. Now you can do the same for us,” said one audience member, walking up the main aisle towards the microphone.

“It’s a special meeting. Why can’t we talk?” yelled another. With Council President Ward arriving late for the meeting, Vice President Daniel Gendron tried to restore order.

The residents ultimately had their say.

“I’m sick of it. I’m sick and tired of being abused by the state of Rhode Island,” said Richard Fagnant. “We all know that the bottom line is that if we go into bankruptcy, it’s going to lower the borrowing rate of the state.”

Lorraine Corey, another self-identified taxpayer and founder of the informational website MyWoonsocket.com had drafted her own resolution, which she was asked to read before the council.

“Whereas, the taxpayers of Woonsocket have already realized an increase in sewer taxes,” it began, going on to list increases in water rates, vehicle taxes, the pending supplemental tax bill and the ongoing reduction in services, “the city of Woonsocket cannot support the inclusion of an increase in trash collection fees.”

Ward arrived before the end of the meeting and gave his take as a member of both the council and the state-appointed commission.

He told the council, “If we don’t raise this revenue of $1 million with this fee, then we’re either going to have to cut costs or raise revenue some other way. Raising the trash fee to double is ridiculous, but right now it’s the only option being thrown at us.”

The vote against the fee was unanimous.

But despite a meeting that seemed to end with a small victory for taxpayers, council members emphasized that the fee was still in the city’s budget, scheduled to be taken up by the commission this Friday at their 11 a.m. meeting.

“You did a great job this evening and made your point well known, but please don’t let it end here,” said Gendron, “The Budget Commission is not obligated to follow what this council says.”