Updated May 28 at 6:28pm

Lifeline for R.I. cities on the brink?

'We need to get to the point where we can stay alive.'

After municipally run retirement systems were excluded from the sweeping state pension overhaul passed by lawmakers last fall, Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee vowed to come back this year with a new bill to help cities and towns struggling under the cost of their local pension plans. More

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GOVERNMENT

Lifeline for R.I. cities on the brink?

'We need to get to the point where we can stay alive.'

Posted:

After municipally run retirement systems were excluded from the sweeping state pension overhaul passed by lawmakers last fall, Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee vowed to come back this year with a new bill to help cities and towns struggling under the cost of their local pension plans.

Few at the time, however, knew how far-reaching the package of municipal-empowerment bills proposed by the governor last month would go, and that Chafee would look to change not only local pensions, but the collective-bargaining dynamics between local governments and unions.

A cost-of-living-increase freeze for government workers like the one that dominated the pension debate last fall is included in the package, but may not end up being the biggest flashpoint in the seven bills lawmakers began discussing in Senate hearings last week and will take up in the House next week.

“COLAs are not the most controversial changes in this package,” said Daniel Beardsley, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, which supports the municipal-aid package. “The measures for highly distressed communities that have to do with binding arbitration and things like school bus monitors have been in the collective radar for years and would be game-changers. Organized labor is opposed to that.”

Provisions in the package would cut worker or retiree-related costs for all communities by lowering the minimum size of disability pensions for municipal workers, barring any locally run pension plans from offering benefits more generous than the state-run Municipal Employee Retirement System and freezing COLAs for any local plan less than 60 percent funded.

For “highly distressed communities” in the bottom 20 percent of per capita income and property values, the measures would go even further and allow suspension of payments to police for getting college degrees, elimination of teacher seniority pay raises, and preventing public-safety unions from operating under expired contacts while going through binding arbitration.

A former mayor of Warwick, Chafee has included other measures in the bill that target the tension in many communities between municipal and school officials by giving chief executives in “highly distressed communities” final authority over education budgets and allowing consolidation of school and city-side administrative functions.

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