In Woonsocket, bigger tax bills on the way

In Woonsocket, bigger tax bills on the way

Legislators, residents question if commission achieved needed savings

WOONSOCKET - Higher tax bills are coming, Woonsocket residents.

After a year and a half of asking to resolve ongoing deficits by raising local taxes beyond the state limit, Woonsocket officials won the go-ahead from the General Assembly last week.

This week they made quick work of instructing Tax Assessor Christopher Celeste to send out the extra bills.

But residents and legislators, who knew the city's authority to tax residents an additional $2.5 million was contingent on proving they'd achieved $3.75 million in savings from changes to union and retiree contracts, questioned whether the city's state-appointed Budget Commission had followed proper procedure.

"They just pulled the trigger," said Sen. Marc Cote, who remained skeptical this week.

Residents can expect to receive their regular tax bills for 2014 over the next two weeks.

The jump in rates, which will translate into as much a $2.30 cent increase per thousand on some classifications of properties, will be readily apparent.

In addition to raising taxes by 4 percent - the maximum allowed by state law - the city passed major rollbacks to the homestead exemption for single family homes this year. The authority to charge an additional $2.5 million annually will apply to 2014, becoming part of the city's permanent tax base going forward.

But that's not all. On July 26, a second "supplemental" bill to be retroactively applied to fiscal year 2013, which ended June 30, will be sent out to all owners of motor vehicles and residential property, except owner-occupied single family homes and condominiums.

That tax bill, which equates to an 18.7 percent increase on vehicles and a 4.7 percent increase on residential property, will have to be paid in one shot, and will be due by Aug. 30.

The Woonsocket Budget Commission received final authorization to apply the new taxes July 3, but the legislation, which was hammered out in long hours of debate during the past year with the city's delegation, specified that the city must first realize savings of $3.75 million from changes to retiree and union contracts. As of last Wednesday, legislators said they'd only seen evidence of around $900,000 in concessions.

State Revenue Director Rosemary Booth Gallogly told the commission Monday, however, that they'd exceeded the requirement.

"We've provided the commission with a sheet that identifies projected savings from the enactments and tentative agreements and you can see the annualized savings is $4.7 million," she said.

Commission member Peder Schaefer laid out the details: the commission, he said, would gain around $1.2 million from agreed upon changes to the health care policies of active employees, plus enactments - or resolutions aimed at forcing the changes in lieu of an agreement - on police union health insurance. About $2.34 million would come from enactments affecting retiree health care. $1.14 million in savings would come from suspension of cost of living adjustments for public safety workers and the reorganization of departments.

"I'm comfortable that we've met the threshold," said Schaefer.

The small, but vocal group of residents who attended Monday's meeting careened forward trying to hear discussion on the final vote. As has been the case with many Budget Commission meetings since the state-appointed board assumed charge of city finances last year, much of the conversation was inaudible.

"We can't hear a thing," bellowed one woman.

"Someone tell them to speak into the mic so we can hear how they're spending our money," said Don Turcotte, a self-identified city taxpayer who carried a sign warning residents "Bankruptcy only a breath away."

After the meeting, Turcotte said he felt the taxpayers had been taken.

"I don't trust them," he said. "They didn't get the savings, but they took the tax anyway."

At least one legislator also felt the commission had moved too quickly.

"I believe the Budget Commission applied an incorrect interpretation of the legislation," said Cote, pointing out that H-6103, the bill authorizing the tax required "realization" of the savings.

"In my view, the fact that some of those enactments are currently being contested means they're violating the spirit and intent of the legislation," Cote said.

At least one of the commission's enactments is currently being challenged in Superior Court. Last week, retired city police officer Glen Hebert charged that the commission lacked the authority to make changes to his health care benefits. According to Hebert's lawyer, Attorney Edward Roy of North Kingstown, around 40 additional retirees have joined the suit.

"I'm not sure how many there will be at the end of the day but there will be more," Roy said of his retiree/clients.

Gallogly said that while the challenge could affect the savings realized from one classification of retiree - specifically police officers - the city would still see savings from changes to the health care plans of nearly 800 other former city employees, many of whom had agreed to the plan.

"Our preference obviously is to have agreements because then the risk of those challenges goes away and that's what we're working towards," she said.

Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt said that while she was unsure of how much the commission had secured in savings when she allowed the state legislation to move forward, she trusted the numbers being put out.

"If there's anyone who knows the numbers, it's Rosemary," said Baldelli-Hunt.

The commission, the representative pointed out, unanimously ordered the tax bills to go out. "They've put their necks on the line so they better make sure those savings are there - it's their reputation at stake."

Current union employees of the Woonsocket Police Department, meanwhile, rejected the proposed collective bargaining agreement put forth by city leadership last week. Sgt. John Scully, president of International Brother of Police Officers #404 could not be reached for comment.