City makes progress with unions, but expects little help from state legislature

City makes progress with unions, but expects little help from state legislature

WOONSOCKET - A $12 million advance in education aid kept the city on its feet this week, and two unions could be ready to sign contracts aimed at easing Woonsocket's long-term debt, but officials raged at state lawmakers this week saying they were getting no help with their fiscal problems from the General Assembly.

After months of negotiation, the Woonsocket Teacher's Guild has scheduled a vote on a new tentative agreement with the Budget Commission that includes concessions needed to implement the city's five-year deficit reduction plan. The WTG vote was scheduled for yesterday afternoon, June 26.

AFSCME Council #94 Local #1137, the collective bargaining unit representing Woonsocket School Department secretaries and custodians, meanwhile, has a vote scheduled for Friday, June 28.

The news is the kind of positive momentum Woonsocket officials have awaited for months, but on Wednesday it appeared to have come too late for a solid plan to be implemented for 2014. The concessions are just one element of a multi-faceted approach aimed at resolving the city's ongoing deficits and as members of the General Assembly prepared for final votes on the state budget this week, it appeared several elements would not go as Commission members had hoped.

* A bill extending the amount of time the city has to pay back an unfunded pension liability had shown no signs of passage. That change was slated to save the city $7 million annually.

* The version of the budget approved by the House Finance Committee decreased Woonsocket's expected appropriation as identified in Gov. Lincoln Chafee's plan by around $1 million.

* Differing versions of a bill authorizing the city to collect supplemental taxes of $2.5 million passed, but then languished in both the House and the Senate.

"What do we do now in anticipation of the real possibility that no solutions are provided by the General Assembly?" asked City Council President John Ward in a letter to state officials and members of the commission. Ward asked to have a calculation on savings possible with across-the-board pay cuts for all classes of employees to take effect July 1.

"Failing that, I am prepared to vote to turn the city over to a receiver in accordance with the apparent wishes of the General Assembly and its leadership," said Ward. "We have done our job, they have failed us."

Meanwhile, the Rhode Island Department of Education approved a $12 million advance of state aid for schools for the second consecutive year. The payment resolved some of the city's immediate cash flow worries and may have given the Commission another year to work out a plan.

Commission member Peder Schaffer has suggested that one option could be the use of a provision issued with the city's pension obligation bond that could allow Woonsocket to raise an administrative tax of $4.7 million. The rarely used statute passed a decade ago was aimed on ensuring the city would not default on the $90 million obligation.

The General Assembly was expected to vote on a finalized budget plan Wednesday evening.