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In Rhode Island, mayor is demoted to adviser

By Abby Goodnough

New York Times News Service

Published: Monday, Feb. 21 2011 10:32 p.m. MST

CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — These are trying times for the people of Central Falls, a city so close to fiscal collapse that the state seized control of City Hall last summer. Taxes have risen nearly 20 percent to help solve the immediate crisis, unions have agreed to givebacks and the city of 19,000 — all 1.29 square miles of it — seems tinged with defeat.

But to hear Mayor Charles D. Moreau tell it, his own suffering may be worst of all.

Moreau, a Democrat serving his fourth term, has not set foot in City Hall since July 19, the day that a state-appointed receiver took control. The state police knocked on his door that morning, he said, demanded his city-owned car and cell phone and keys to City Hall and handed him a letter announcing that his salary of $71,736 was being cut to $26,000. His role was now advisory, he was informed.

Across the nation, cities and states are trying myriad ways of righting their fiscal ships as the recession plods on. But locking the mayor out of City Hall is generally not one of them.

A number of local governments are so financially distressed that states have assumed an oversight role. Several cities in Michigan have emergency financial managers appointed by the state, for example, and in New York, a state board seized control of Nassau County's finances last month. But in those cases and others, local elected officials have retained some role.

Moreau, 47, is suing the state, asserting that the law allowing the takeover of financially troubled cities violates his constitutional right to due process, among other things. He appealed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court after losing the first round and is awaiting a ruling.

Moreau's administration took the state by surprise by declaring fiscal insolvency last May. That alarmed the state, which feared other beleaguered cities would follow suit, and bond rating agencies, which downgraded Central Falls' debt to junk status. So the legislature swiftly passed a law allowing indefinite state oversight, a measure Moreau initially supported.

The receiver, Mark A. Pfeiffer, a retired state judge, did not move into Moreau's office when he arrived on the job, laying claim to a conference room instead.

Moreau said he had not bothered reading a lengthy report that Pfeiffer submitted to the state in December with recommendations for averting fiscal collapse. The report said the city's problems were rooted in more than a decade of elected leaders approving generous union contracts without figuring out how to pay for them.

Moreau lamented that his wife had been forced to return to work and his youngest child to enter day care.

"This was not my family plan," he said.

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