UPDATE: General Assembly passes modified supplemental tax plan

UPDATE: General Assembly passes modified supplemental tax plan

But fate of tax bill could rest with retiree's court challenge

UPDATE – On Wednesday, July 3, the House of Representatives also passed the supplemental tax bill by a vote of 53 - 4. The bill is now expected to be signed into law by Gov. Lincoln Chafee, but residents will still not be required to pay the additional tax until the Commission can prove that they have obtained at least $3,75 million in concessions.

WOONSOCKET - A long-awaited bill authorizing the city of Woonsocket to collect an additional $2.5 million in taxes for fiscal year 2013 passed the Senate on Tuesday and looked likely to gain approval in the House, but the change won't make its way to taxpayers' wallets until the Budget Commission can prove they've gained at least $3.75 million in concessions from retirees and unions.

The legislation, which was first passed by the House back in May, had been held while the city's delegation reportedly sought reassurance that other elements of the Budget Commission's five-year plan fell into place.

"We needed to be sure we didn't receive a supplemental tax bill without the rest of the plan," explained state Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, also a candidate in the city's upcoming mayoral election.

With session nearing a close before legislators break until January, a decision had to be made, and on Tuesday evening, the final compromise came forward. Language was added to H-6103 that made the tax contingent upon the city's ability to gain $3.75 million in savings.

"We have to be certain that they are reaching the goal," said Baldelli-Hunt.

The bill is just one element of a five-year plan crafted by the state-appointed commission to address the city's ongoing and crushing debt. The $2.5 million is slated to become a permanent part of the tax base according to the deal, which also sees cutbacks to current and former employee benefits, and changes to municipal services.

Elements of the plan, which the commission has been working on for well over a year, finally began to fall into place this week when five unions signed new contracts to create a unified health-care plan with a 20 percent co-pay. (See Page One story.) Only two collective bargaining units had yet to sign on for concessions as of Tuesday - International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 404 and International Association of Fire Fighters Local 732.

Members of the city's delegation said they weren't quite satisfied with the commission's progress, which is why they added the amendment.

"The Budget Commission was not able to accomplish all of their goals as far as negotiations," said Baldelli-Hunt.

While talks with the fire union seemed to be at a standstill this week, city officials were still waiting to hear if the police union had ratified a tentative agreement.

A finalized version of the tax bill, including the amendment, was headed back to the House Wednesday evening at Baldelli-Hunt's request, and looked likely to pass.

Mayor Leo Fontaine, who also serves as a member of the commission, said he was happy with the board's progress and added that he took no issue with the change to the legislation.

"I don't think that it's unreasonable," said Fontaine. "If they had looked to do that from the beginning, I don't think it would have been a problem."

The mayor said his team was still in the process of crunching the numbers to see how much they'd already gained in concessions, but believed they were on the right track, if short on time.

"We're really up against the clock at this point, but at the same time, we're happy they're working with us," said Fontaine.

But state Sen. Marc Cote said that according to the delegation's calculations, the city had only met between $900,000 and $1 million of that $3.75 million requirement.

"The way the bill is structured, the supplemental bill does not get issued unless they've reached their goal," said Cote.

The contingency figure, he said, was based on a requirement that the commission achieve 75 percent of the $5 million they originally set out to gain from former and active employees. The retirees, however, Cote pointed out, are challenging the changes that took effect July 1 (See story on Page 2) which are set to account for some $3.7 million.

"We don't know with what's going on right now if they're going to be able to implement those changes," said Cote. The legislation, Cote said, is "based on the ability of the city to see with certainty that everything is legal and enforcable."

Cote said he believed the final outcome of the bill could rest with the status of that legal challenge.