Amid budget crunch, R.I. lawmakers may cut local funds again

Associated Press / October 12, 2009

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PROVIDENCE - State lawmakers plan to put local governments under scrutiny this week as they debate how to fund schools, police departments, and other local services during one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression.

Lawmakers on the Senate Finance Committee have scheduled a hearing Thursday on funding for the state’s 39 cities and towns, which consumes a large part of the state budget.

The committee’s chairman, Senator Daniel DaPonte, Democrat of East Providence, recently said he supported the consolidation of municipal services to save money, although he has not presented specific plans. Earlier this year, lawmakers voted to cut $55 million in funding for cities and towns to try to close massive budget deficits.

“There are no revenues to share,’’ DaPonte said two weeks ago. “The current situation as it stands is not sustainable over the long term.’’

Providence’s mayor, David Cicilline, a Democrat, recently proposed combining police, fire, and public works services among the cities and towns surrounding the capital city to save money. Lawmakers in the Democrat-majority General Assembly rejected consolidation proposals from Governor Donald L. Carcieri, a Republican, earlier this year. But the debate has renewed as the state’s finances deteriorate.

Rhode Island began its fiscal year in July with a $62 million budget deficit caused in part by a tanking economy. The state’s finances have grown even worse as soaring unemployment pushed down income and sales tax revenue.

A tally released last week by Carcieri’s administration showed state tax collections were down nearly 5 percent from already pessimistic projections and could fall further.