Ward says Woonsocket has a strong legal hand to make cuts if talks fail; Brien defends anti-tax stan

Jun 15, 2012

Woonsocket City Council President John Ward invokes the example set by Providence in describing how the city might wipe out its deficit if negotiations with unions don’t get the job done.

“We have to engage the unions now  in negotiations,” Ward said during an interview broadcast today on RIPR, “because the only thing that’s going to close our deficit gap is something in the order of a 10 percent salary cut for every employee across both departments — the school department and the city side, as well as some significant cuts to healthcare and benefits, current benefit packages.”

Ward went on to say:

“If we can’t get negotiated settlements, we’re simply going to have to do much like Providence did and simply do it by ordinance. And we”ll freeze the COLA and we’ll change the health benefits, and we’ll cut salaries across the board by a fixed percentage.

And if they take us to court, we’re going to fall into the compelling public interest argument, which is the court standard for what you do to make changes where you break contracts. And that’s unforunate, and that’s why I hope they’ll negotiate with us, but the fact is, the compelling public interest argument will win, because the court can’t order us to go raise taxes when the General Assembly hasn’t authorized it.”

Ward maintains the 13 percent supplemental tax backed by city officials wouldn’t have posed too much of a burden for residents or inhibited efforts to cut structural costs.

But State Representative Jon Brien, who with fellow Reps Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and Robert Phillips blocked the supplemental tax on the last day of the General Assembly session, says their approach is more sound.

“Just taking a 13.8 percent tax increase up front, without identifying exactly what was going to happen after that tax increase was not a responsible move,” Brien said in an interview. “Some call it the easy way out; others say it was courageous … We did what we thought was most responsible.”

Ward predicts Woonsocket will be able to get back on track without a receiver.

Brien says he’s like the majority of Woonsocket residents who think a receiver — he likens it to someone with a fresh view of the situation — is needed. As he notes, a receiver can petitition for bankruptcy if good-faith negotiations by management come up short.

“Everyone knows,” Brien says, ”you never move faster than when you have a piano hanging over your head.”