LINCOLN â Holding his finger and thumb less than an inch apart, Gov. Lincoln Chafee told the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce Thursday that the state is âthis closeâ to intervening in the financial affairs of East Providence, at least in part due to pension obligations.
âNobody wants to hear the word Central Falls, but â trust me, itâs not just in Rhode Island, all across the country â municipalities are really under stress. And here in Rhode Island, this is our time to help these municipalities.
The governor was making his pitch for the businessmen and women to lobby their state legislators to make sure that his proposal to help the independent pension plans run by cities and towns â called non-MERS plans because they are not part of the state-operated Municipal Employees Retirement System â isnât carved out of the comprehensive state pension reform bill now being considered by the General Assembly in a special fall session.
Chafee called helping the municipal plans âthe most important thing if we are going to have one-time, comprehensive pension reform.â
The governor likens some of those woefully underfunded local plans â Providenceâs local pension plan is only 32 percent funded, Cranstonâs has only 15.8 percent of the money on hand that it should have, and communities such as Coventry and Pawtucket have underfunded plans â to âicebergsâ that threaten to sink the finances of those municipalities and perhaps the entire state.
âThis is the biggest iceberg we face out there,â Chafee said, âand there has been some reluctance by some to include these non-MERS plans in what is being billed as comprehensive pension reform. Itâs not honest to call it comprehensive reform if we donât include these no-MERS plans, especially the big ones.â
âThese plans will not fix themselves, trust me,â the governor asserted. âThe pressure on these municipalities not to raise property taxes and to just start skimming from their pension funds is just too great. They do need help from the state.â
One problem for the first-term, Independent governor is that mayors and town administrators for the most part do not like the way the pension reform bill handles the local plans. At least some of the local leaders were hoping the state would take over the local plans and make them part of the MERS system. Instead, the proposal is that each local plan must get an actuarial experience study by April 1 of next year. For each plan that is less than 60 percent funded, the municipality will have to present a remediation proposal to a âsolvency review teamâ of state officials appointed by the administration. If that remediation is not approved by the review team, then at the expiration of each collective bargaining agreement COLAs will be suspended and state aid could possibly be withheld from the communities and diverted to the pension funds.
He acknowledged the opposition from the local leaders. âIn order to get it in â to get some part of the non-MERS plan into the bill that was proposed, frankly it was watered down. My argument to the mayors and town managers is âget your amendments and get into the process. So they are doing that.
âThere is a lot talk about getting these non-MERS plans outâ of the larger bill. âI need your help here to advocate with your state reps and state senators,â Chafee told the chamber members at a breakfast meeting at Kirkbrae Country Club.
Chafee dismissed the notion that the legalities of interfering with the collective bargaining agreements the communities have with their employee unions would be a bar to addressing the troubled pension plans. âOur proposal is to mirror what the state is doing â the suspension of COLAs (Cost of Living Adjustments), thatâs the big one. If it is going to be legal for the state to tell a retiree we are going to suspend your COLA until the fund reaches a certain threshold of solvency, why is it not legal to do it to a retiree of the Cranston Fire Department, for instance.â
The governor opposes the idea of the General Assembly returning in the spring to address the local plans, rather than doing it during the special session. âWho wants to come back and do this again?â he asked rhetorically. âWhen we are doing budgets? When we are doing every legislatorâs pet issue? Plus itâs an election year? Itâs not going to happen.â
Chafee rejects the idea that the non-MERS provision is a âpoison pillâ that is going to kill the entire bill. âI say thatâs defeatist. Before you even start, you are going to say no, weâre not going to address the biggest icebergs out there? No! Letâs give it our best effort. Now is the time. This is really critical to the health of the cities and towns.â
Northern Rhode Island Chamber President John Gregory also urged the chamber members to become involved with the pension reform effort.
âOne thing that labor does so much better than the business community is to rally rank-and-file troops,â Gregory said, suggesting that the business owners âtake it out onto the shop floor. Let Sue know, who lives in Burrillville how much itâs going to cost the town of Burrillville if thereâs no pension reform. Let Billy, who lives down in Cranston, know whatâs going to happen in Cranston from a property tax perspective if thereâs no pension reform.
âWeâve got to get the members of the General Assembly to get the message,â he said. âThe labor community is doing that, as they always do. This is our opportunity.â