Providence’s Financial Woes

If you haven’t heard, the city of Providence is in some serious financial trouble right now. The previous mayor, David Cicilline, left the city with a serious deficit (somehow he managed to get elected to Congress). As has been all over the news, our current mayor, Angel Taveras, has sent all of the city’s public school teacher termination notices. If it sounds like a drastic measure, it was. Four to six schools will also likely be closing, among other means to cut costs and increase revenue. I want to explain my thoughts as to what can, and should, be done in the city to help raise revenue without overly taxing the residents (which is likely going to happen).

The mayor outlined what will happen. He has already given himself a 10% cut in pay, effective immediately. He will cut his office payroll by 10% for the next fiscal year. He will be eliminating 13 non-union positions, some of which are currently vacant (the pay grade for all of them is greater than $80,000), saving the city $1.7 million.

His first major shock was the termination of the teachers. The teachers’ union is pushing him to rescind all the terminations and issue layoffs. He chose terminations for one reason, and it’s a big one. The union contracts state that if a teacher is laid off, they can “bump” another teacher with less seniority. That means the laid off teacher still has a job, but the one they “bumped” is now laid off. I am pretty outspoken in my distrust and dislike of unions, especially when it comes to the public sector (read: taxpayer dollars). Union fans look at seniority and years of service, what they call “experience”, as the most important factor in pay increases and continued employment. I believe that job performance and qualifications should be the most important factor, with years of service also playing a role. The terminations allow the mayor and the school board to pick and choose whose terminations they will rescind without the worry that a more “experienced” teacher who may have gotten lazy after so many years will bump their prime candidate out of the job. I have no problem with this. It allows them to cut the highest paid worst teachers and keep the best teachers, regardless of level of pay. Many believe they will cut all the highest paid teachers, but I have faith in our mayor.

A press release from the mayor’s office and a ProJo news blog post map out what has been discussed to deal with the budget shortfalls. Here are some suggestions I have and thoughts on some of what has been brought to the table.

First and foremost, the city council has been pretty quiet. Why? Aren’t they the governing body for the city? I say they should take pay cuts as well.

The second most important thing the city needs to do is enforce it’s damn laws. We have laws on the books that fine various entities for doing or not doing various things. A few examples come to mind:

  • Snow removal – A law that should be strengthened with more teeth and graduated fines (increasing for each offense). This is not enforced, but the city should be fining offenders. It’ll bring in tens of thousands of dollars. And if people start actually removing snow, it’ll make the city safer for pedestrians.
  • Overnight parking – The city shouldn’t do it haphazardly. Instead, send patrols around pretty much everywhere, especially the common areas. Ticket the cars that violate this. It’s a silly law, but it’s on the books and not likely to go away. Use it to the city’s benefit. There will always be cars parked overnight.
  • Garbage cans – There’s a fine for bringing it to the curb too early and removing it from the curb too late. Fine the offenders. It not only brings in money, but helps beautify the city.
  • Parking violations – Ticket cars parked too close to a corner (the law is something like 20-30 feet from a corner). This one is ignored in certain locations, like Federal Hill, but those are the most dangerous locations. Enforce it. In fact, how about parking meters on Federal Hill? They have them on College Hill by Thayer where parking is tough, why not on Atwells and the surrounding streets?

In the suggestions made by the panel was taxing college students who bring cars to the city as a kind of “registration”. I don’t know if other cities do this, but I’m generally opposed to adding more fees to college students. Instead, we should just fully enact the overnight permit parking program that has been a “pilot” program in several neighborhoods for a few years now. The city sells overnight parking permits to the residents for a fee and you can park on the street overnight. If you don’t have a permit, you get ticketed. This would still require the patrols, but could also depend in part on people reporting violators anonymously to a “parking hotline”. I’ve been told that the suggestion is that you can only get a permit if your car is registered in the city of Providence because you’re paying an excise tax on that car. This would rule out college students unless they registered their cars here, which would mean they had to pay the excise tax. A thought I had would be to charge people one cost, I think it’s currently $25, if your car is registered in the city, and to charge those with cars registered outside the city a higher fee, say $75-100. The permit is good for the year and you renew it annually (and get a new sticker, obviously). Even though I have a driveway, I’d probably still buy a permit.

Providence has a ton of tax exempt property due to the large number of non-profits in the city, such as the hospitals and colleges. Brown University has the largest number of tax exempt properties. While I understand why they are tax exempt, and these institutions do give money to the city in lieu of taxes, I say tax the non-academic use as a percentage of total property. This means all residence halls and dining halls. If an academic building has a coffee shop in it, that space gets taxed. Does it make it harder for the colleges? It might. Will they go out of business? Not likely. Providence College raised it’s tuition quite a bit this year and saw the highest enrollment in recent years.

There are a lot of surface parking lots downtown that should be developed. To incentivize development, rather than incentivizing pavement, the city should tax those lots to the potential use. In addition, the city needs to better regulate parking. The lots charge pretty much whatever they want. The city should be taking a portion of that and regulating what they can charge and fining lots that don’t follow the rules, such as lots that don’t clearly post their costs at the entrance.

On Federal Hill, mainly Atwells, the restaurants each have their own valet service. There’s actually strip of three restaurants all next to each other that each have their own valet. Not only does this eliminate about two parking spaces on the street per restaurant, but they put up a sign, blocking a large portion of the sidewalk, often next to their tables, which block another large portion of the sidewalk, making it difficult for pedestrians to pass. The city should charge a fee to any restaurant that closes off street parking for their valet service. This would limit valets to the end of the block, assuming the city enforces the 20-30 feet to a corner law, or cost the restaurants money. Most of them belong to the merchants’ association. Perhaps they could pool their money and have a handful of valets on the street rather than at each restaurant. We’re not talking about long walks here.

I read that the city pays $500,000 annually to pick up mattresses left on the sidewalk. Instead, charge an additional fee for mattress removal.

I’ve read stories about former city employees, mainly cops, who had been convicted of crimes, I believe they might have been felonies, and they kept their full pension. Stop paying out the pension for city employees who are convicted of a crime. I’ll let the city determine the severity of the crime.

Renegotiate all the union contracts. Sure, it’s already in there, hoping they’ll make some concessions to save the city’s finances. I say they drop the seniority “bump” that I explained above. It applies to everyone, not just the teachers. Employment should be based primarily on qualifications and job performance, not seniority. I don’t care if you’ve worked for the city for 20 years. If for the past three years you’ve sat around and done little, but your fellow worker who has been there for five years has been working his butt off and layoffs are coming, the lazy one gets the boot and doesn’t get to bump someone else.

Lastly, and this is something that could benefit the state, school districts need to be consolidated in the entire state. We have 39 municipalities in this state and over 40 school districts. We can easily consolidate many of these, resulting in less staffing at the district level (the highest paid level).

One of the comments on the ProJo blog post suggests a merging of various cities. They suggested Providence, East Providence, North Providence, Pawtucket, Central Fall, Cranston, Johnston, Warwick, and West Warwick. Sure, it would toss out centuries of history, but regionalization of services wouldn’t be horrible, if you don’t completely merge the cities.

Anyway, I have faith that our mayor and city council will get us through this financial crisis. I hope it doesn’t all fall on the taxpayers. We pay a ton already to live here. Hopefully the city will seriously look into some of these options to cut costs and raise revenue and keep the inevitable tax increases to a minimum.

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