Central Falls council meets, first time in a year

The City Council held its first public session in more than a year on Thursday, just days after a state receiver filed for bankruptcy on the struggling city’s behalf, but it held little substantive discussion and heard no public comment.

Council President William Benson Jr. has sparred with receiver Robert G. Flanders for months — including in court — over whether the five-member panel may meet. The council was demoted to advisory status after the state stepped in last year, and Benson has been highly critical of the receiver. He has questioned, among other things, how much the receiver’s office spent in the run-up to Monday’s bankruptcy filing.

But at the Thursday night session, which lasted only about 20 minutes, Benson largely deferred to Flanders, who was in attendance, asking what role the council could play as the bankruptcy proceedings unfold.

Flanders said he would be happy to consider ideas from council members as the receiver’s office prepares over the next 30 days a plan of recovery to be presented in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. That plan would balance the city’s budget, reduce its debt load and lead to what Flanders has called a “skinnier” Central Falls, whose budget for the most recent fiscal year was $16.8 million.

“We’re really looking forward to your input,” Flanders told the council.

The city of 19,000 residents, just north of Providence, has $80 million in unfunded pension obligations and a projected $5.6 million deficit for the current fiscal year. Flanders already has moved to slash pensions by as much as 50 percent and has sought to void police and firefighter contracts. Deep cuts to the police and fire department budgets are on the table, and municipal employee layoffs are expected.

The council decided to convene, after a long hiatus, after Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed a bill that said elected officials in municipalities under receivership are allowed to advise the receiver — even if the advice wasn’t sought — and after a state Superior Court judge affirmed their right to meet in a ruling last month.

About a dozen residents, including some who wished to be heard, showed up to the session at City Hall. But Benson adjourned the meeting without hearing from them, saying public comment wasn’t on the agenda and open-government rules required the body to follow the agenda.

Speaking after the meeting, Benson said the council would submit suggestions to Flanders’ office as it prepares a recovery plan. He suggested the city badly needs funding from the state.

Chafee included several million dollars for Central Falls in his budget proposal for the year beginning July 1, but it was stripped out by the General Assembly.

Ron Doucet was among the dozen or so residents who attended. He said he was disappointed the council hadn’t scheduled time for public comment. He said he was angry that a privately operated jail hasn’t been giving the city payments that it was counting on.

“They don’t pay nothing to the city,” he said. “I’m paying my taxes. They’re not paying their share.”

Doucet has lived in Central Falls all his life and thinks the city has better days ahead.

“This city is worth saving,” he said.

Flanders said after the council adjourned that a possible annexation with Pawtucket is still a possibility for Central Falls, though that city has had a fiscal crisis of its own.

“We’d love to have Pawtucket seriously consider that,” he said.

Discussions also are under way with officials in Cumberland and Lincoln about a possible sharing of services.

“Naturally,” Flanders said, “they want to know: What’s in it for us?” 

Article source: http://www2.turnto10.com/news/2011/aug/04/6/central-falls-council-meet-discuss-bankruptcy-ar-662924/

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