PROVIDENCE – When provisions for reforming locally-administered pension plans (called non-MERS) were dropped from the comprehensive pension reform late in the process last year, Gov. Lincoln Chafee vowed to introduce legislation on the first day of the 2012 General Assembly session to reform struggling plans that are causing fiscal misery for certain cities and towns.
He missed that self-imposed deadline on Tuesday.
Instead, the governor is convening a Municipal Executives Strategy Session (MESS) with mayors and administrators of the state's 39 cities and towns to evaluate municipal finance issues including proposed solutions for reform of the troubled pension plans. There are 36 municipal plans – some communities have more than one – and 24 are considered dangerously underfunded.
Chafee spokeswoman Christine Hunsinger said that session, to be held Thursday at 10 a.m. at the Statehouse “will be a precursor to introducing the legislation” and other strategy meetings are contemplated. “So there will be a longer term march toward legislation. We're going to get everybody in a room and have some conversations around the subject of independent municipal pensions as well as other municipal issues (where) the state can play a role in helping out cash-strapped cities and towns and then the governor will introduce legislation at the appropriate time based on feedback from that meeting and other meetings.”
The General Assembly and its leadership won high praise when the legislature held a special fall session to pass reform of state public employee pension plans that was called the most sweeping in the country. But despite the pleas of mayors and other municipal officials, locally administered plans were not part of that legislation.
Asked if Chafee is going to present the city and town leaders with legislative language on pension reform of if he is looking for suggestions in developing a bill, Hunsinger said, “I can't answer that question until I see an agenda and I don't have one right now. I know he has had meetings with many of the mayors already and has gone through what the issues are that face the communities.
“I don't sense it will be too long” before a bill is filed, she said Tuesday, “but it is not going to be today.”
The MESS will be held behind closed doors and the press and public are barred from the two-hour meeting. Chafee and some of the mayors will conduct a press conference after the meeting is over. Hunsinger said the gathering is closed to the media so there could be a “frank and open discussion” with the municipal leaders.
The governor said he expects to lead a collaborative discussion centered around much-needed policies, programs, and tools that would allow local governments flexibility in dealing with fiscal problems and provide relief to local property taxpayers.”
Woonsocket Rep. Jon Brien said he has spoken with the governor's office “to let them know when it comes time for the non-MERS (Municipal Employees Retirement System, the state-run plan for municipal workers) pension legislation that I definitely want to quarterback that in this chamber.”
Brien said he is also going to seek to have the bill heard in the House Municipal Government Committee that he chairs. “I've been dealing with the leaders of municipalities on this issue prior to pension reform, I've spoken with them several times, and I just think it makes sense for me. There are people who won't want to touch that issue because they are afraid of whatever political repercussions might come. That has never been my M.O. I'm happy to do it, I'm motivated to do it.”
"In the past three years, Rhode Island cities and towns have lost over $193 million dollars in state aid,” Chafee said in a written statement. “The results of those cuts can be seen today in struggling communities throughout Rhode Island. The State must provide support to cities and towns, if not through state aid then through policies, programs, and legislation that will ensure flexibility and provide relief for the property taxpayers."