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Donna Perry: Chafee and the Fight for Cities and Towns

Thursday, April 12, 2012

 

Governor Chafee and his family may have run into an unfortunate issue involving his teenage son this week but it should not distract from the far more significant effort the Governor has been making through an important series of road trip visits to local town halls in recent weeks.

Chafee is attempting to corral broad support from local elected city and town leadersfor his multi-pronged municipal fiscal relief legislation which rolls into an important venue today as it goes before the Senate Finance Committee to begin a series of hearings.

Taken together, the Chafee road trip to communities and the administration’s major push at the statehouse demonstrate that, sixteen months into office, Chafee has found his voice and footing on the state’s central fiscal challenge and he deserves notice for it.

The staff of Treasurer Gina Raimondo may be bristling a bit at Chafee taking a page out of her playbook in visiting individual cities and towns to gather support for his important municipal pension reform and relief legislation, but they should not view it that way. The far reaching and long term impact of Raimondo’s groundbreaking pension reform legislation for the state system in 2011 is serving as an irreplaceable foundation for what Chafee is trying to accomplish now, and her handprints remain in evidence yet again this week. New data has surfaced about the troubled conditions of the 36 individual municipal pension plans scattered around the state, but this time, thanks to reforms instituted through Raimondo’s bill, a process is now in place to at least measure the scope of the debt. The actuarial experience studies recently conducted and the very existence of a municipal pension plan oversight commission (Locally Administered Pension Plans Study Commission) were both required within the larger sweeping bill of last year. The RI Retirement and Security Act specified that the experience studies be done on local plans which, shockingly, were being done in many cases for the very first time.

The results now being tabulated by the new local plan commission comes not a moment too soon as it turns out the studies are revealing that the unfunded liability problems run even deeper than originally thought- like about $170 million deeper. That brings the tab statewide in the pension debt facing local communities to $2.3 billion, higher than the original projection of $2.1 billion. That brings us back to Chafee’s road trip and his legislation and why it’s so significant. It is not often that we see a series of direct exchanges between a Governor and local school committees and town councils in the way Chafee has crafted on this current tour.

These exchanges are helping to vividly identify, for the benefit of the average citizen, the sources within their own town’s budget that consistently escalate costs and are pushing many communities over the edge. It’s not been common to see a Governor walk into a local town hall and engage in frank talk with a town council and a school committee about things like the cost of annual teacher step increases, level school funding requirements and the like in plain sight of average citizen taxpayers. All too often these specific built-in school department cost problems, and there are layers more of them, have been the turf of insider lobbyists for schools committees and towns but have not been aired out for the weary taxpayer. In addition to annually spiked up costs in school departments, Chafee’s package also delves into police and fire contract mandates, intentionally mischaracterized for years by police and fire lobbyists as needed in the name of public safety, which are equally at the root of out of control local budgets.

Anyone doubting the need to reform the state’s fire department coststown by town needs to be reminded that tiny Rhode Island has the highest fire protection costs in the nation. This is shamefully and directly tied to union victories in the Legislature which cemented in the type of mandates that have little to do with public safety and have served merely to spike up personnel pay through regular and unneeded overtime costs. They are unnecessary (minimum manning staffing on trucks) andin some cases dishonestly crafted mandates that have mostly served as nothing more than paycheck windfalls that are helping to bury local communities.

The bill categorizes communities by their degree of fiscal trouble and it’s no surprise it identifies Pawtucket, West Warwick, the clearly troubled Woonsocket, and most notably Providence, as in a category of “severely distressed.”
Taxpayer advocates need to communicate to members of the Finance committees first and foremost, and to all legislators ultimately that severely distressed may be how they will feel this fall if they fail to act on major municipal relief legislation this spring.

Donna Perry is a Communications Consultant to RISC (http://www.statewidecoalition.com)
 

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