Snow plowing may take longer, classrooms could become more crowded and fewer police officers may patrol Rhode Island if cities and towns are forced to absorb $125 million in funding cuts proposed by Gov. Don Carcieri to balance a tanking state budget.
The Republican governor defended his proposal Tuesday to reduce state assistance to cities and towns as necessary amid an extraordinary recession that has pushed unemployment to nearly 13 percent and driven down income tax and sales tax collections. The budget deficit for the fiscal year ending in June is roughly $220 million, or about 7 percent of what the state expected to take in.
Carcieri said municipal leaders must renegotiate their contracts with employees to cut costs and urged the Democratic-dominated General Assembly to pass legislation forcing local government employees to pay more for their health insurance and reduce the cost of their retirement pensions. He has ruled out hiking taxes to fix the deficit.
"If everyone takes a little bit of a haircut," Carcieri said, referring to pay cuts, "then we can keep everyone working and help us get through the next couple of years. Some of our cities and towns have done that; a lot of them have not."
Municipal leaders warned it may be impossible to absorb such a large cut in funding midway through their budget years.
The proposed budget would trim about $65 million meant to compensate local governments for a scaleback in the state's automobile excise tax, cut $19 million in school aid and includes millions of dollars in savings from Carcieri's proposal to trim the value of municipal pensions.
Westerly, a seaside community, was already struggling to deal with state funding cuts last year. It eliminated three jobs in its police department to compensate for state funding cuts last year and declining revenue from local taxes, town manager Steven Hartford said. It already laid off a gatekeeper at the town's station for garbage collection and other laborers in its public works department.
If Carcieri's budget proposal becomes law, Westerly will likely have to raise local taxes and probably lay off more staff.
"In my view, the governor is expecting cities and towns to pick up too large a share of the state deficit," Hartford said.
East Providence Mayor Joseph Larisa Jr., a Republican, said the proposed funding cuts would be impossible to absorb unless lawmakers approve legislation in Carcieri's plan meant to cut costs for local government. The legislation would prevent labor unions from negotiating how many firefighters and police officers must be on duty, eliminate cost-of-living increases in the pensions of many municipal retirees and force them to pay more for health insurance.
Lawmakers rejected most of those proposals last year.
To save money, East Providence is already going without a tax assessor, a parks director and a building inspector. During a meeting Tuesday night, Larisa and other East Providence officials plan to discuss laying off 12 custodial workers and six other workers at City Hall.
"We're bare-boned, and we can't remain that way for long," Larisa said.