Fall River mayor candidates square off at WPRI in final debate

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – In their final debate before Election Day, the two candidates running for Fall River mayor sparred Friday over issues from crime statistics to pension payments and taxes.

Leading off, incumbent Mayor Jasiel Correia called allegations against him that federal investigators are looking into the finances of a private business he owned – an app called SnoOwl – “distractions.” The Fall River Herald News has reported that Correia said he was aware of the investigation, but during the debate he said there has been confusion about what he told the newspaper.

“I admitted I heard rumors,” Correia said during the debate on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers. “To my knowledge I can’t confirm or don’t know anything about what’s happening.”

His challenger, City Councilwoman Linda Pereira, responded: “If the mayor doesn’t feel there is an investigation, why did he hire lawyers?”

“I haven’t heard anybody come forward that has been a legitimate source that hasn’t had an axe to grind with me,” Correia said. “Nobody can confirm any of this. I’m a couple of days before an election, we have a positive record, we have a good record as an administration that has delivered more services to our taxpayers.”

The two were then asked about the staggering shortfall in Fall River’s pension and retiree health care plans, totaling more than $900 million. State officials have said the city needs to increase its payments to the pension fund alone by 6.5% every year, which would be an increase of roughly $2 million annually in the coming years.

Both candidates said they were not willing to explore cutting retirees’ benefits to try and reduce the unfunded liability.

“All the communities around us are inheriting these issues that politicians from the past never dealt with,” Correia said. “We are now doing that.” He said the city is tapping into a surplus to create a trust fund in case benefits can’t be afforded in the future.

Asked if she would increase taxes or cut spending as mayor, Pereira said, “You might do a little bit of both.”

“The pension has to be supported,” she said. “The money has to be put there.”

Pereira took the mayor to task for what she said was “off the charts” crime in the city, despite FBI statistics that show violent crime was down in Fall River in 2016.

“You can say the stats are down … [but] the shootings in Fall River are off the charts,” Pereira said. “To have gun casings and shells in the streets in Fall River, we really need to look at that.”

“Councilor Pereira constantly says that shootings are ‘off the charts’ but provides no charts,” Correia shot back. “Every debate we’ve had – and we’ve had several – she has never provided a chart that shows that evidence.”

“My charts and data come from our police department,” he added.

During a rapid-fire section of questions – where the candidates are asked to give one-word answers – Correia said he opposes the newly proposed changes to the city’s charter which would make changes to how city government operates, while Pereira supports it.

Both candidates supported the Massachusetts “fair share” ballot question that would apply a 4% income-tax surtax to those who make $1 million or more. And both opposed term limits for the office of mayor.

Correia gave Gov. Charlie Baker an “A” for his job performance, while Pereira said the governor has earned a “B.” Pereira awarded President Trump a “D,” while Correia gave him a “C.”

Correia said he is opposed to requiring Fall River police officers to wear body cameras, while Pereira supports it.

Correia was elected mayor in 2015 as the youngest mayor in Fall River history. He previously served on the City Council. Pereira has been on the City Council for 16 years and currently serves as the vice-chair.

Election Day is Nov. 7.

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook