Baldelli-Hunt: We're ready to control our city
Baldelli-Hunt: We're ready to control our city
WOONSOCKET - The state-appointed board overseeing Woonsocket finances since May of 2012 has overstayed its welcome, Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt told members last week.
In an angry rant directed at Budget Commission Chairwoman Dina Dutremble last week, she accused board members of allowing politics and personal preference to influence their decisions.
State Director of Revenue Rosemary Booth Gallogly, meanwhile, says that while the commission's work is almost complete, she won't give the official OK to dissolve the board until all elements of the city's five-year plan are nailed down. That hinges, Gallogly says, on resolution to the lawsuit brought forward by several police retirees.
"The big financial piece is closure with retiree groups," Gallogly said. "That's the piece of the puzzle that's missing." But some believe the departure of the commission - a state appointed group aimed at restoring the city's fiscal stability - is long overdue. Only one of the original members currently serves on the five-member board, with several resigning to take other roles in the private and public sectors. Even the mayor and City Council president, who are required to serve on the commission under the enabling legislation, have changed, thanks to an election held last year.
The issue came up at the commission's Aug. 20 meeting, when the board took up an agenda item addressing the appointment of a solicitor for the School Department. Longtime district solicitor Richard Ackerman retired earlier this year, and while the School Committee voted to have the firm operated by Benjamin Scunzio, Brennan, Recupero, Cascione, Scungio & McAllister LLP, serve their short-term needs, a permanent replacement has yet to be confirmed.
When the item came up, both Dutremble and Baldelli-Hunt began speaking simultaneously.
"I'm going to make a motion..." started Dutremble.
"I have communication from the interview committee and also the School Committee," Baldelli-Hunt said.
The chairwoman said that the mayor could show members the communication after she finished her motion.
The mayor shot back, "Excuse me. I have communication from the School Committee to this board."
Dutremble responded, "And you can provide that."
The mayor reacted with anger.
"Keep your politics out of our city," Baldelli-Hunt said. "We have an item before this board and we are going to vote on this item because we have communication from our School Committee and the interview committee. Don't request interview committee and then because you are not in favor of the recommendation from the committee, you move and you insert your personal opinion and your politics into a decision."
During the tense 10 minutes that followed, Chairwoman Dutremble said that she wanted the School Committee to get a chance to vote on the appointment first, while the mayor accused her of postponing the vote for her own personal reasons.
"You were not elected to represent the city of Woonsocket," Baldelli-Hunt said. "Quite frankly, this Budget Commission has overstayed its welcome. And I do not need members of this commission inserting themselves into decisions within City Hall and the School Department. It's been two and a half long years and we're ready to control our city."
Under the Fiscal Stability Act, which provides guidelines for the state to intervene in distressed communities, Gallogly has the authority to both appoint commission members, and to abolish the board once their job is largely complete. In Woonsocket, former Mayor Leo Fontaine and members of the City Council requested help from the state to resolve a severe cash shortage at the School Department. The state-appointed board has additional powers under law and could obtain an early disbursement of education aid, allowing the district to pay overdue bills and continue operations.
Since that time, the commission has devised a five-year plan, which involved fiscal contributions from everyone in the city, from taxpayers who faced a supplemental bill, to unions who were asked to change their contracts and benefits. Just last month, the commission signed a five-year contract with the final union holdout - IAFF Local 732.
But a suit challenging the changes to health care benefits filed last year by a group of retired Woonsocket police officers is still unresolved.
"We would like to get this wrapped up so that the five-year plan could be completed with certainty," said Gallogly. "We only want to use the powers under the Fiscal Stability Act to the point that (they're) needed."
But Baldelli-Hunt says the commission has already stayed too long, and she used the example of appointing a solicitor, in which she said the chairwoman was being inconsistent, to make her point.
"You have never taken into consideration what the council has voted on or what School Committee has voted on, until it's in your benefit," the mayor said to Dutremble. "You know what I need the general public to understand? This Budget Commission has been in place for two and a half years - two years longer than a Budget Commission was in place in East Providence. And the longer you sit in a community, the more embedded you become, and the more likely you are to begin to make decisions based on reasons that are not necessarily in line with what you're supposed to be making. This has been happening."
Dutremble is the only member of the commission that has served since its inception in May of 2012.
Gallogly pointed out that the length of time that the state has intervened in municipal finances has varied between the three distressed communities in which the FSA has been utilized. In Central Falls, a state-appointed receiver was put in charge for three years. In East Providence, she said, the process lasted roughly two years. Woonsocket, Gallogly asserted, is on track to land right in the middle.
The revenue director also disagreed with the idea that commission members were allowing personal or political biases interfere with their decisions.
"In my experience, they're very sensitive to the issue of the powers of elected officials," Gallogly said.
All of the members, Gallogly pointed out, are unpaid volunteers.
"Residents should be very grateful," she said. "In Woonsocket, I think the Budget Commission members are very anxious to wrap this up because a lot has been done."
Gallogly said the commission would likely be abolished if the retiree suit was resolved, and that the city would move to a lesser level of fiscal oversight, with the appointment of a fiscal adviser who works directly with the mayor and the City Council. In East Providence, Paul Luba has served as finance adviser since December 2013.
The commission ultimately voted to take up the issue of appointing a school department solicitor again on Thursday, Aug. 28, the day after the School Committee is expected to vote.
The mayor abstained from voting on the issue and continued to express her displeasure.
"You could tell from the immediate jump to the microphone that we were going to move to not vote on this, and that there was a reason for that. It didn't matter that I had communication. I can shred all of this. It doesn't matter. The goal today was to make sure we did not vote on legal counsel. It's clear and its evident and anyone who's denying it is fooling themselves."