City lays groundwork for more hopeful 2014
City lays groundwork for more hopeful 2014
WOONSOCKET - The year 2013 was dominated by financial worries for many in Woonsocket, as the city's budget-balancing act spread to everything from retiree health care to tax returns, and officials considered garnering more new revenue through added fees on virtually every facet of city life.
But progress was also made on many fronts, from growth to the city's arts community, to what many felt was the start to a righting of Woonsocket's fiscal ship. With a new mayor and administration, a buyer for Landmark Medical Center and a slew of new organizations working on behalf of the city's future, Woonsocket is poised for an optimistic start to the new year.
The five-year plan
Last January, Finance Director Thomas Bruce gave residents their first peek at the Budget Commission's five-year deficit reduction plan, a strategy to eliminate the city's massive debt by 2017. The plan included regular tax increases along with a supplemental bill on city property, changes to union contracts and retiree health care policies, reductions in city staffing and services, and a number of additional measures that would require General Assembly approval. With no action, officials said, the city would end up $95 million in the hole by 2017.
But in February, the city's state legislators made it clear they weren't sold on the plan, putting some doubt around when, or if the tax, and other elements of the strategy that required a change in state law, would move forward. Soon, legislators would go to work crafting their own version of the supplemental bill.
Meanwhile, state Revenue Director Rosemary Booth Gallogly delivered the bad news on health care to retirees in an informational meeting at Woonsocket High School attended by around 200 former fire fighters, teachers, police officers and municipal workers. Negotiations with the city's unions got off to a slow start, and as the end of the fiscal year approached in June, implementation of many aspects of the five-year plan did not look promising.
But at the end of the month attorneys working on the city's behalf had a breakthrough: the Woonsocket Budget Commission ratified agreements with five collective bargaining units, confirming new contracts with unions representing several categories of education and municipal workers. Two of the groups held out: IBPO, Local 404, the union representing the city's active police officers and IAFF Local 732 - the fire fighters union - the only collective bargaining unit that still had an active contract with the city of Woonsocket.
The General Assembly followed suit, passing a bill to extend the time frame in which the city must pay back a $90 million pension bond, and moving forward legislation authorizing the city to collect $2.5 million in supplemental taxes.
Tax bills reflecting the maximum increase allowed under law and a roll back of the Homestead Exemption went out in July, followed immediately by supplemental bills totaling $2.5 million. Both became part of the permanent tax base.
Currently, the city is working under an altered police contract that the union has not agreed to. Officials say they've already begun to garner some savings from the changes to health care policies. The most recent update of the five-year plan, which also assumes the enactment of a new fire fighters' contract when the current one runs out in June 2014, shows Woonsocket on track to have debt resolved by 2017.
Residents facing higher taxes and the loss of benefits stepped forward to challenge elements of the plan almost immediately.
State Sen. Marc Cote spearheaded an effort claiming the city had sent out the supplemental tax bills without meeting the requirements of the enabling legislation, namely, the realization of $3.75 million in savings through other mechanisms. One-hundred thirty-five residents signed on as plaintiffs in the suit and Attorney Robert Senville also asked the court to certify a class action lawsuit. Neither Senville or Cote were available last week to comment on progress in the suit.
A second court challenge was issued by police retiree Glen Hebert, who, in August, said that the Budget Commission lacked the authority to change his health care benefits. Nearly 50 of Hebert's fellow retirees signed on to that suit, which is currently pending in Superior Court, Providence.
New city revenue
A difficult cleanup after winter storm Nemo in February shed light on the sad state of the city's fleet of plows. And as Woonsocket's bills continued to add up, the Budget Commission looked anywhere and everywhere for some additional funds to add to municipal coffers.
* An unpopular plan to both double the cost of trash removal service and implement a pay-as-you-throw system was discussed midyear, but was delayed while the Commission debated the best way forward. As of December, there had been no changes made to city trash service, although adjustments were scheduled to bring in around $1 million according to the five-year plan.
* Woonsocket took advantage of changes to the state's Income Tax Refund Offset Program, notifying hundreds of residents that their refunds would be intercepted if they did not pay the city for past due bills. Residents quickly resolving the bills brought $500,000 to City Hall and another $53,488 later came in through the Rhode Island Division of Taxation. Tax Assessor Christopher Celeste said notices have once again been sent to delinquent taxpayers this year, notifying them that their refunds could be intercepted during the upcoming tax season.
* A plan to charge sports leagues to use city fields received heavy criticism in its initial design, but an adjusted plan that doesn't affect children's teams and decreases the fee according to level of residency was eventually passed. Since the change was passed mid-year, the city has collected around $11,000 from out-of-town adult leagues.
* Woonsocket sold liens on 123 properties at a tax sale in August, bringing in around half a million dollars. Finance Director Thomas Bruce said the annual sale tripled his expectations, reflecting the dire status of the finances of Woonsocket homeowners.
* In November, 13 Woonsocket nonprofits were notified they would be receiving bills in 2014 totaling $382,040. Since then, many of the groups have spoken out against the plan, but Celeste said that as of this week, he's received no instruction regarding a change in direction.
Shopping centers vacated
The departure of Lowe's from Diamond Hill Road in February continued the growing exodus from the once vibrant shopping plaza. Walmart and Staples had already left the area in 2012 and in June, the city's last full scale grocer, Shaw's, left nearby Walnut Hill Plaza.
In November, the owner's of Woonsocket Plaza, WP Woonsocket Associates LLC, announced that they could not afford to renew their lease with Burlington Coat Factory without a major tax break. The business has sought an abatement of $400,000, although as of last week, the city has taken no official action on the request.
Still, a celebration
To commemorate Woonsocket's 125th anniversary, the city held a massive Block Party in August with 12 stages of entertainment, food and dozens of other attractions along a half-mile stretch of Main Street. An estimated 30,000 people attended the lively celebration, put together largely by supporters of Mayor Leo Fontaine, including real estate developer Albert Beauparlant.
A "Last Night" event, closing the anniversary festivities, was scheduled to be held in conjunction with the annual Main Street Holiday Stroll on Dec. 11. Several of the attractions - including a fireworks display and the launch of a "Woonsocket Rocket" - were cancelled, however, after administrators from new Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt's office said organizers had not obtained the proper permits.
NE Distance, a support program for athletes training for professional careers as track runners, established roots in the city this year. The initiative, launched around the start of 2013, provides the young athletes with affordable housing as well as part-time employment working with, and ideally inspiring, city youth. Four runners have already joined the program, holding jobs at YouthRap, Thundermist, KidsClub and Connecting for Children and Families. The organization held a 5k race in May as a way to encourage youth fitness and several of the runners have been competing at the professional level over the past 12 months, placing in top spots. Organizer Nick Haber told The Breeze last week that he expects to add more athletes to the program this fall.
The Parent Leadership Training Institute, a program operated through RiverzEdge Arts Project that aims to increase parent engagement and to help residents become leaders in their communities, also launched in Woonsocket this year. Eight parent-students completed the course in 2013, a 20-week training program ending with a community project. This year's graduates left PLTI to begin stints in government and to form several new resources for Woonsocket's parents and children including the Kids Count Project and the Woonsocket Support Group. Organizers will be accepting applications for the 2014 class until Jan. 6, 2014. Interested parents can call PLTI coordinator Kyla Foster at 767-2100 for more information.
Former U.S. Marine Edward Bermudez also launched the River Falls Young Marines in Woonsocket this year, a youth education program aimed at improving the mental, moral and physical development of its members. Bermudez operated the program for boys and girls ages 8 through the completion of high school at the Father Marot CYO Center this year. In 2013, he worked with six children in the city as part of a larger, national Young Marines program. During 2014, activities will take place at the LaPerche Elementary School in Smithfield during the school year, returning to Woonsocket in the summer. The River Falls Young Marines will be holding a registration/information night for their 2014 Boot Camp on Jan. 15 from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at 11 Lime Rock Road in Smithfield.
Arts community making strides
A diverse group of leaders in business, arts, transportation and green development completed the Main Street Livability Plan during 2013, a guide to creating a vibrant downtown through arts, entertainment and pedestrian friendly design. The plan, a brainchild of city planners Jennifer Siciliano and Paulette Miller, was unveiled to the public April 3 and has since won Smart Growth Rhode Island's sole "Outstanding Smart Growth Policies and Plans" award as well as the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Planning Association's 2013 Award for Outstanding Neighborhood Planning.
Marie Deschenes' dream of transforming two former mill buildings in Market Square into an artist's enclave took great leaps forward in 2013 with several new vendors opening up shop in Le Moulin including The Frolicking Goddess, The Opulent Squid, Yen's, and Triple T's. The unique mini-mall at 68 South Main St. also began holding vendor fairs every Saturday, when the building also opens their food court and a chef serves up different culinary themes.
In a somewhat related project Connie Anderson of Stage Right Studio for Arts and Wellness launched the Woonsocket Arts Guild in 2013, a collaborative of creative folks that work together to show fairs, galleries and training programs. The Guild held its debut event on Feb. 1 and sponsored an arts and music festival in June. The organization is headquartered in the Le Moulin mini-mall at 68 South Main St.
Filmmakers Scott Gabrielson and Jason Allard created the film My Old School during 2013, a documentary on the former Woonsocket High School based on interviews with dozens of past students. The film premiered on Oct. 5 during a well-attended event at the current high school. The movie can now be purchased for $12 on the filmmaker's website at http://www.oldschoolwoonsocket.com/.
The Stadium Theatre Performing Arts Center also had a big year, which included an expansion. The Marquee Room, a 3,000 square-foot space dedicated to the popular venue's more intimate performances, meet and greets, after-school education programs and VIP receptions opened in November.
RiverzEdge Arts Project, a Woonsocket-based organization providing employment in the arts industry to underserved teens, was featured in a new national market-research-based study by The Wallace Foundation this year. The report, "Something to Say: Success Principles for Afterschool Arts Programs From Urban Youth and Other Experts," can be viewed at http://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/arts-education/Communi....
The year 2013 may go down in history as the year that brought an end to the fiscal uncertainty surrounding northern Rhode Island's only hospital, and the launch of the state's first for-profit facility. Closing on the purchase of Landmark Medical Center by Prime Health Care Services is expected by Dec. 31, ending five years of receivership.
Prime, an award-winning California-based chain operating 23 hospitals in five states, emerged as a likely buyer in 2012 after Steward Health Care backed out of the deal. Prime underwent the lengthy regulatory process laid out in the state's Hospital Conversion Act through the start of the year, leading former Mayor Leo Fontaine to accuse regulators of "foot dragging" in June. Days later, the Rhode Island Office of Attorney General and the Rhode Island Department of Health deemed Prime's application complete, and in October, both boards granted the sale approval.
Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein gave the purchase a final green light in November, and both parties are now working to finalize the transaction. Prime has promised to invest nearly $50 million in Landmark, and its sister facility the Rehabilitation Hospital of R.I. at Park Square, during the next five years.
A final off-year election
Politics dominated the city's headlines through the latter half of the year. Mayoral and City Council hopefuls came forward seeking to win a unique three-year term. City voters approved a referendum putting municipal elections in synch with the rest of the state in 2012 raising the stakes for this year's would-be leaders. Regular on-year elections for city leaders will begin in 2016.
Four individuals sought seats in the mayor's office while a list of 15 City Council hopefuls was narrowed down to 14 when School Department employee Jeffrey Belknap dropped out of the race. A mayoral primary held in October eliminated green-minded candidate David Fisher and Michael Moniz, who's name has become a standard option on municipal ballots.
WNRI, The Woonsocket Call and the Black Initiatives Group all hosted candidates debates, giving voters far more opportunity than in past cycles to hear from the candidates first hand. Still, turnout was relatively low, with just around 7,500 of the city's 25,609 eligible voters casting ballots in the mayoral race.
State Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt ousted Fontaine by a margin of two to one and two young newcomers, Garrett Mancieri and Mellissa Murray, topped Councilor Marc Dubois and longtime Council President John Ward for seats on the board.
A new way forward
To date, new Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt's term has been marked by a new level of enthusiasm and optimism. Supporters turned out in droves for the mayor's celebration party and inauguration, which were both held at the Stadium Theatre. State legislators, government officials and City Council members have vowed to help Baldelli-Hunt in her goal of taking back local control of city finances, and bringing an end to the state-appointed Budget Commission.
The new mayor's first order of business, appointing an administrative team and a School Committee, were completed this month and residents said goodbye to many who served on Mayor Fontaine's staff including Economic Development Director Matthew Wojcik, City Clerk Andrea Bicki and Solicitor Joseph Carroll.
Albert Brien was selected as Council president, landing him a seat on the Budget Commission right beside Baldelli-Hunt. The mayor is expected to deliver a state of the city address after her first 100 days in office.
Many questions remain as Woonsocket faces a new year with a new leader, but many believe the future finally looks a little brighter for the city on the move.