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Mayor Sutter: Fall River may need ‘bitter medicine’

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FALL RIVER, Mass. (WPRI) – Newly elected Fall River Mayor Sam Sutter is warning city residents that he may propose tough measures in the coming months to deal with the budget problems he’s inherited.

“The city’s finances are under siege,” Sutter said Friday during a taping of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers. “We have debt obligations, we have liabilities with the pension system, with the sewer project, and I just don’t think that there has been enough long-term vision on these issues.”

“There may be … some bitter medicine that we’ll have to apply,” Sutter continued, saying he expects to spend the next month diving into the details of the budget situation before he can propose solutions. He declined to estimate the size of the shortfall in the budget for this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Sutter took the oath of office as Fall River’s 47th mayor on Tuesday, just weeks after he defeated incumbent Will Flanagan in a rare recall election. Sutter resigned as Bristol County district attorney, an elected position the 62-year-old Democrat has held since 2007, on Friday.

One of Sutter’s biggest concerns is Fall River’s pension system for city retirees: the gap between the benefits promised and the amount set aside to pay them soared from $51 million in 2005 to $312 million in 2013, according to the most recent municipal audit. The city faces an even larger unfunded liability of $569 million for its retirees’ health care.

Asked whether he’ll be forced to ask Fall River retirees to accept pension cuts, Sutter said: “I hope not. I don’t think we’re in the situation that Central Falls was in. But we’re ranked 100th out of 104 in solvency of our pension system. Obviously, we’ve got to make some changes.”

Sutter said he plans to release a “comprehensive” plan for economic development in Fall River within six months. The waterfront city of nearly 90,000 people has been struggling economically for years as its textile mills closed down and thousands of residents moved out.

A “big priority” for Sutter is finalizing a deal with Amazon.com for the Web retailer to build a massive new distribution center on the border of Fall River and Freetown. The project, which would bring an estimated 1,000 jobs to the area, appeared to stall last month when it was pulled from the agenda of a state economic panel.

Sutter said he’s “still optimistic” the Amazon project will happen, describing it as one of his top five priorities. “Whatever I can do to help secure Amazon coming to Freetown-Fall River I am ready to do,” he said, adding: “We need those jobs here in Fall River.”

Sutter is much cooler, however, to a different high-profile project championed by Flanagan: building a Foxwoods resort casino in the city.

“I might listen to what they have to say,” Sutter said. “That’s not something I’ve given a lot of thought to right now. … If I got a call from Foxwoods or any of the other casino developers, naturally I would listen, but … it’s not a big priority for me now.”

Sutter suggested he’s unlikely to reverse Flanagan’s decision to move Fall River to a “pay as you throw” garbage system, a controversial move that helped trigger the successful campaign to recall Flanagan.

“I’m going to look at it – I promised that during the campaign. I’m going to size it up. But from my vantage point, right now it seems to be working,” Sutter said. He added: “It wasn’t implemented well and I want to look at the costs. But it seems to be working.”

Sutter said he will seek creative ways to further reduce gun violence and gang activity in the city, though he emphasized that significant progress has already been made since he became district attorney. He said he will definitely keep the current police chief, Daniel Racine, in place.

Sutter said he will face less of a “learning curve” as he takes over in Fall River thanks to what he learned as district attorney. “Every day, virtually every week, I learned lessons about leadership at the district attorney’s office,” he said. “But I do have a learning curve about the issues.”

Sutter said he’s received a positive response from Fall River residents since his election. “I get a lot of encouragement, and I’ve sensed that people understand that we have to tackle these issues that, to some extent, we’ve been avoiding,” he said.

Ted Nesi ( tnesi@wpri.com ) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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