60 sign on as plaintiffs in Woonsocket supplemental tax challenge
60 sign on as plaintiffs in Woonsocket supplemental tax challenge
WOONSOCKET - Did the Woonsocket Budget Commission have the authority to levy a supplemental tax of $2.5 million and to instruct city officials to send out additional tax bills this year?
Detractors say no, and their legal challenge filed in August has attracted some 60 plaintiffs, and launched an ongoing education effort designed to draw more into signing on.
"From our perspective, the law is crystal clear and we are to the point now where we're insisting through the courts that our elected and appointed officials follow the law," said James Cournoyer at an informational meeting last Wednesday.
About 250 people crowded into the Elk's Lodge on Social Street for a status update on the court challenge.
The turnout exceeded organizers' expectations.
"I'm really very impressed with how many people showed up today," said attorney Robert Senville, who has agreed to represent city taxpayers at the discounted rate of $150 per hour.
The challenge, which charges that the tax is not in compliance with the General Assembly legislation that authorized it, started off with just four plaintiffs prior to Wednesday's meeting: Cournoyer, City Councilor Roger Jalette, state Sen. Marc Cote and mayoral hopeful Roland Michaud. The suit is being financed through private donors to the Woonsocket Legal Defense Fund which, as of Monday, contained nearly $6,500 donated by 125 taxpayers.
Senville has requested that the court certify a class action lawsuit, and if approved, it would have the potential to benefit any resident forced to pay the tax. If the judge does not approve a class suit, however, the attorney explained that only the named plaintiffs would be entitled to compensation if the case prevails.
"I felt it was very important to notify people that they have the right to be a plaintiff in this case," said Senville. "There's no downside to joining."
The suit is based on the assertion that the Budget Commission did not meet requirements laid out in the state law authorizing the tax: namely, that the city realize $3.75 million in savings from changes to the contracts of union and retiree groups prior to sending out the bills.
"The tax is illegal," said Senville. "Taxing power must be given by the General Assembly. The $3.75 million in savings was not realized, so there was no legislative authority for the tax."
The Woonsocket Budget Commission, represented by Attorneys Edmund Alves and Joseph Cavanagh, is the primary defendant in the case, with the city of Woonsocket also named - as the body that implemented the tax. The city will be represented by Attorney Marc DeSisto.
When commission members authorized the tax in July, state Revenue Director Rosemary Booth Gallogly told The Breeze that she believed the city had achieved the needed concessions, and the latest projections show the city saving $4.7 million through the contract changes in 2014.
The suit, however, states that at least $2.9 million of those savings can be, or are currently, the subject of a legal challenge. Changes affecting both police retirees and members of the active police union are being contested.
According to Senville, long-time senator Cote was instrumental in insuring that the bill called specifically for "realization" of the savings.
"Marc was really the senator who went in there and insisted that the language be in there," said Senville. "He fought for the language in the General Assembly and we're going to fight for it in the courts."
"I'm not ascribing any motive to this," said Cournoyer of the alleged disparity. "I'm not saying they failed to keep their promises because they're evil people or because they were trying to deceive us. But the reality is they did not keep their promises and we continue to circle the drain here in Woonsocket. Our property values are stuck at the bottom and we're not recovering."
Cournoyer pointed out that the Budget Commission's five-year plan called for some $9 million in savings in 2014, but even projected savings under the latest plan show only $4.7 million.
"We're getting the full tax in return for 52 percent of the savings," he said. "I'm not going to stand for it because we'll be right back at this next year. We need to hold their feet to the fire."
Supplemental taxpayers, Senville said, have some important choices to make in terms of the suit.
"You can be a named plaintiff, or you can kind of sit on the sidelines and see what happens," he explained. "If we are given class action status, you can either opt out of that class or stay in it."
The larger the number of plaintiffs that sign on, however, Senville said, the more worthy the case. With just a few plaintiffs, he pointed out that "damages" may come to only a few hundred dollars.
"We could spend four years litigating this and then recover $400," he said.
"Obviously if the judge sees 100 plaintiffs, I think they're going to have a hard time arguing that the class should not be certified," Senville said.
To become a plaintiff, residents must sign retainer agreement and Senville emphasized it would not result in financial liability, regardless of the outcome of the case.
Senville also challenged the notion that taxpayers were "suing themselves" as members of a community where ultimately, the funds are needed. One woman said she was afraid that joining the suit was simply delaying the inevitable in terms of the tax burden.
"For that to happen, we would have to have a complete failure of all branches of government," replied Senville, saying that he plans to ask the court to protect the class.
"They had a hell of a time getting this tax through last time. There's no guarantee that they're going to get it through again, particularly if there's a judge's order saying that the last tax was illegal."
Reintroducing the tax, Senville said, could only happen through a failure with the judge, a failure in the General Assembly and a failure by the Budget Commission representing the executive branch and violating the court's order.
The Wednesday evening gathering attracted a different crowd than the typical group of political insiders and vocal watchdogs found at regular government meetings.
The usual suspects were there - members of the now defunct Woonsocket Taxpayers Coalition, a few politicians, and residents, like Estelle Bubble and WNRI's Richard Bouchard, that tend to make their voices heard. But the vast majority of attendees seemed to be new faces; working residents and homeowners facing mounting city bills and looking for a way out.
And after just an hour, their spare time was up, and with the presentation still in progress, many attendees headed for the door asking where to sign up. Those who did not have time to read through the retainer were directed to Cote's office at 600 Cass Ave., where the documents are still being passed out and collected from those interested in becoming plaintiffs.
"If they can prove in court that they've realized $3.75 million in savings we're going to lose the case," said Senville. "But from everything I've seen, they have not realized $3.75 million in savings. They haven't even acquired the legal right to realize it."