PAWTUCKET — The sequined lettering on her shirt said it all: Fun Time in the City. And retired City Hall switchboard operator Fran Slade was having fun, making the wait a little less painful for those paying tax bills close to the deadline.
With a friendly smile, the 85-year-old Slade sat at a desk in the front lobby all this week, asking those coming in with tax bills if they were paying with cash or check and directing them to the proper place. If the payment was by check, she offered to take it to save them from waiting in line inside the Tax Assessor's Office. She typically exchanged a few pleasantries and conducted the transaction quickly and efficiently, allowing most bill payers to leave in a far better mood than what they had arrived in.
The effervescent Slade worked for 30 years at City Hall, retiring in 1991. For three decades, she answered all calls with her trademark greeting of “Hello beautiful city of Pawtucket! May I help you?” “The mayors all liked that,” she said, noting that she was nicknamed “The Hello Girl.”
Slade volunteered to come back to City Hall to help with the rush of residents who came in to pay their tax bills by the Friday deadline. While an extension to July 22 has been given on motor vehicle tax bills only, there were about 40,000 more bills that went out this month to residents whose vehicles had been exempt from payment in previous years. That meant a lot of angry people descending on City Hall to not only pay but complain about city officials lowing the motor vehicle exemption to just $500.
When Tax Assessor David Quinn expressed concerns about needing more help during the busy payment period, one of his employees, Tina Esposito Slade, suggested her mother-in-law. “I said I'd be glad to help,” said Slade. “I do other things since I've retired...take elderly to the doctor, things like that. I keep busy all the time.”
In the time that she has spent back at City Hall, Slade has encountered numerous old friends and acquaintances. “It feels like old home week. I'm really enjoying it,” said the longtime Pawtucket resident, who now lives in Rumford. “It's given me a chance to catch up with a lot of people I haven't seen in awhile.”
Slade also said that, despite the circumstances--people coming in to pay their tax bills, and many paying a car tax bill for the first time--everyone has been friendly. “They seem to like that we're here. They like the service,” said Slade. “It's worked out very nicely.”
Quinn agreed, saying, “This couldn't have worked out better.” With Slade and Ramos taking check payments and “acting as traffic cops,” the line in the Tax Assessor's Office has been much shorter than it otherwise would have with so many more motor vehicle tax bills to process. He added that in Slade's case, “She knows so many people, and knows so much about the city's history, it's really been nice for everyone involved.”
Mayor Donald Grebien also said he was glad to have Slade on board as a volunteer and said she would remain until the motor vehicle tax collection deadline of July 22. “Fran was a long-time employee who knows the routine at City Hall and earned a great reputation for how she deals with the public. Bringing her in goes to our emphasis on public service even as we work to do more with less, and her co-workers are as glad to see her again as are the members of the public who she helped over the years.”
Slade added that while a few people have expressed their anger toward city officials over the car tax situation, no one has been unpleasant or rude. “I had one man who vented to me, then smiled and said 'Thank you for letting me express my thoughts,'” said Slade, with amusement.
Romana Ramos, a city employee who works as a police matron and court interpreter, had been borrowed temporarily from the Police Department to help out with the tax bill paying crunch. She had joined Slade at the desk in the front lobby to accept check payments and offer customer service.
Ramos agreed that all of the people she had encountered had been pleasant and many seemed surprised and pleased to be able to pay their tax bill without having to wait in a long line. “People seemed so happy that we are here. Everyone has been really nice. We're smiling and so they leave smiling.”
For Slade, this comes as no surprise, as she was part of the pre-automated telephone era at City Hall. “It's that human touch,” she noted. “We're friendly and have tried to be helpful and I think people really appreciated it.”