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Politics as Usual: Supplemental taxes aren’t the worst scenario (OPINION)

May 16, 2012

A 13-percent supplemental tax really stinks.
There is no way around that fact for people who live in Woonsocket, so it is best to just put it out there from the start: After you have paid all your property and automobile taxes for the year, to be hit with a bill for an extra 13 percent and get nothing for it except to balance the city’s books is the rancid cherry atop a crap sundae.
It is, on the other hand, far better than the alternative. It may not seem like that right now, and “better” might be a relative term, but paying the supplemental tax, as bad as it is, beats receivership and bankruptcy. If you don’t believe me, pick up the phone and speak to anyone who lives in Central Falls, where receivership is in its second year and the city has been in bankruptcy court since last August.
To borrow a cliché from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, paying the supplemental tax keeps hope alive; it keeps citizens and taxpayers and, most importantly, voters in the game. With receivership, which is likely to segue into bankruptcy, citizens, taxpayers, voters and the elected officials they put into office are all relegated to the sidelines. They don’t count anymore. Nothing counts except balancing the budget by any means necessary.
Receivership/bankruptcy is the Triumph of the Bean Counters; it enforces the cold, impassive tyranny of the bottom line.
You think the police officers and firefighters who have risked their lives to protect you have earned a bit of security in their retirement years, particularly when they become old and sick? Tough! When a receiver or bankruptcy judge swings the budget blade, none of that matters. They will be cut off from their pensions and health benefits at whatever level will bring the budget into balance – 75 percent? 60 percent? In Central Falls they got chopped at a level a little bit UNDER 50 percent.
Is there a favorite program or facility in your city you think serves the community particularly well, so well that it has become essential to the warp and woof of everyday life? Too bad! If it saves money to eliminate them, eliminated they will be. In Central Falls, the public library and Holden Community Center were among the operations cut drastically and the community center and a museum adjacent to the library went up on the auction block.
But what about the children? At the very least, their education, and the schools that provide them, would be safe from the budget meat-ax, wouldn’t they? Nope. In Central Falls they did indeed dodge that bullet, because the bankruptcy judge ruled in March that since the state took over operations of the school system in 1991, it is no longer a city function and the receiver has no jurisdiction there.
That would definitely not be the case in Woonsocket, where not only are the schools very much part of the city, they are perceived by many to be the villain in this whole financial mess. School officials surprised the city administration with not one, but two massive deficits totaling about $10 million and, as of last week, things were still getting worse, because some of the measures taken to try to remedy the problem didn’t save as much money as officials hoped they might.
So if Woonsocket chooses receivership, or has it imposed upon them by the state, the wrecking ball will certainly smash parts of the education infrastructure as well.
But all those things, as valuable and precious as they are to a community, are still just things.
Far more valuable and far more precious is democracy, and Woonsocket would lose that as well, at least temporarily, if a receiver comes in.
Right now, if you don’t like the job Mayor Leo Fontaine is doing, you can chuck him out on his ear in the next election (provided he has an opponent you can vote for), but if a receiver is appointed, you are stuck with him or her until the Director of Revenue decides you can have your right to vote back. The mayor, city councilors and school committee members you elected are stripped of their power.
If you don’t like the way your city is being governed by the receiver, you have nothing to say about it that anyone has to pay attention to. When you scream and shout at the mayor, the city council or the school committee, they have to pay attention to you because you can vote them out of office. The receiver doesn’t have to pay attention to you. His or her job does not depend on your votes, so what you do or don’t like means nothing. One of the biggest gripes people in Central Falls have is that the receiver imperiously dictates what will and won’t be and when the people of the city come together to object to it, he doesn’t even show up. Sometimes he sends his chief of staff out to take the heat, but sometimes she doesn’t show up either. What you have to say doesn’t matter; your input is neither invited nor welcomed.
You are no longer a citizen; you become a subject. You are told what to do and you have no choice but to obey. In Central Falls, the receiver has hand-picked a Charter Review Commission with the clear intent of permanently changing the form of government so the people could no long choose the chief executive — that office would be filled by a hireling who answers to the city council, not directly to the people.
But if money is all that counts with you, know that a 13-percent supplemental tax will only be the starting point for the receiver. With no city council to overrule him, he can impose any tax he likes, cut any program or service or sell off any piece of city property with a stroke of his pen.
If a receiver were to take Woonsocket into bankruptcy, then forget whatever price you think your property is worth, because that value is going to plummet on Day 1.
Certain parts of the political class have become enamored of the idea of receivership and bankruptcy. They see what they call a “pre-packaged” bankruptcy as a neat and tidy way of freeing themselves from the obligations cities and towns have built up over the past years, decades and generations, particularly when it comes to employee salaries, benefits and pensions. They seem to not give a whit about the human wreckage and misery that it would leave in its wake.
If Woonsocket residents have not been reading the news stories about Central Falls’ experience with receivership and bankruptcy, then shame on them, but they better start paying attention right now. That goes for anyone reading this in Pawtucket as well, and West Warwick, too. Any one of your communities could be next. If you don’t fight it with every bit of strength, energy and ingenuity you’ve got, then don’t come crying later when your town gets taken over.
A 13-percent supplemental tax is lousy, but don’t ever make the mistake of thinking it couldn’t be worse.

Jim Baron covers politics and the statehouse in Rhode Island for the Rhode Island Media Group. He can be reached at

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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