By Tom Shevlin
NEWPORT -- City Council members on Wednesday weighed in on a series of bills currently making their way through the General Assembly that could have significant impacts on city finances.
In what may have been the most significant, councilors voted to endorse a package of legislation being pushed by Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee, that would give qualifying cities and towns more control over post employment benefits.
The legislation, which has been criticized by union leaders for reaching too far into established contracts, was welcomed by the mayors of Providence, Cranston and Warwick during a highly anticipated press conference last month.
If approved, those cities and towns that have been determined to be "highly distressed communities" (HDCs) would be required to balance collective bargaining agreements with the community’s ability to pay.
Meanwhile, other communities facing less severe financial burdens would be given a toolkit to reign in costs, including permission to suspend COLAs in local-administered pension programs; cut disability pensions if those employees have demonstrated the ability to still work; and to bring local pension benefits in line with the state-run Municipal Employees Retirement System (MERS).
Saying that the legislation would offer "financial relief" to the city, councilors threw their support behind the following bills:
• H-8006 and S-2826, which would extend to communities which have been determined to be "highly distressed communities" (as defined by the General Laws of Rl) additional authorization to act in modification of police and fire labor contracts.
• H-8009 and S-2825, which would allow a municipality with a locally administered pension that is in critical status to suspend future benefit adjustments to retirees after certain findings are made.
• H-8010 and S-2824, which would prohibit municipal ordinances, collective bargaining agreements, and interest arbitration awards from providing employee retirement benefits that exceed the actuarial value of benefits afforded under the municipal employees retirement system, and would further authorize city and town councils to amend retirement benefits for new and non-vested employees.
• And finally, H-8012 and S-2829, passage of which would provide that supplemental appropriations made by a city, town or regional school district appropriating authority for the payment of past annual expenditures would not be used in the computation of the maintenance of effort requirements established under Section 16-7-23 of the Rl General Laws.
Another piece of legislation, however, wasn't as well received.
House Bill 7867, which was introduced by Providence Rep. William San Bento, and calls for the reduction of all municipal permit fees by 50 percent for a period of two years, found staunch opposition from the council.
While the bill, which would also implement a moratorium on the assessment and collection of municipal impact fees as currently established for proposed new construction for a period of three years, is being supported by developers, according to councilors, it could have a significant impact on revenues collected by the city.
Councilors resolved that "[P]assage of H 7867 would result in a loss in revenue of approximately one-half million dollars and severely impact the City of Newport's Operating Budget."
Both resolutions – supporting the governor's proposal and opposing the San Bento bill – will be forwarded to the city's General Assembly delegation for their consideration.
For a full wrap up of Wednesday's council meeting, visit www.Newport-Now.com.