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Dan Lawlor: Rhode Island Decadence/Build for the Future

Monday, February 04, 2013


So much was built up in the early 1990s - so much that laid the foundation for what is right in the city now. From non-profits to infrastructure to the arts to restaurants, much of what is great about Providence was planted over twenty years ago.

Yet, there is still so much uneven in the city. Big businesses like GTECH or Hasbro receive tax credits or property tax exemptions, while regular working families and storeowners struggle.

The litany should be familiar to you.

I've spoken with several people who've relocated to Providence's East Side from other neighborhoods for safety reasons. I've spoken with residents in Valley who say they can't remember when things were so bad. I spoke with a man who's planning to sell a second rental property he owns specifically because of the rising tax rates. I've spoken with a retiree who budgeted based on a specific property tax rate, and the rises are making her consider leaving.

I've spoken with people in high rises who feel their building's quality of life is being ignored. I've spoken with a mother scared of police abuse. I know of families who moved out of Providence - to Cranston or Smithfield - specifically because of concerns about public school options in Providence.

So far, neither tax credit give-aways to big businesses, nor, for that matter, the culture of the General Assembly broadly, seem to be encouraging opportunity or security for most people in the state.

It's simply not fair to allow big business to forgo property taxes, while pushing the tax burden more and more onto homeowners and small business owners. It's not fair to cut pensions and maintain high sales taxes, while insiders are given full pension judgeships and magistrate positions. In a state this small, rising property taxes will push more middle class people into suburbs like Lincoln, Johnston, Smithfield, and North Providence, creating more road maintenance and transportation costs, and costing the city volunteers and advocates.

To top all this off, Rhode Island has one of the worst cultures of philanthropy in the country. If you include religious and non-religious charitable donations, our giving rate is 3.1% of discretionary income, 46th in the country. Numerous excellent community programs - New Urban Arts, Community Music Works, RiverzEdge, Sofia Academy, San Miguel School - have to turn people away for lack of space or capacity limits.

The late Nancy Gerwitz once said, "to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, while embracing all that is good, is, in itself, a marvelous victory."

This period of Rhode Island decadence must be re-imagined. Yes, it's not as bad as the riots, road demolitions, mob rule, and arson of the 1970s. That's good. That's great, in fact. However, today, to do better, we must say no to political corruption and no to corporate give-aways - we need transparency, we need decency, we need each other's help.

In the last thirty years, the pluck and dynamism of individuals like William Warner combined with teams of people to use the public's money to create a beautiful river walk, Waterplace Park, imitating the river walks of Europe in Paris and Rome. Cora Braga, my grandmother and a Classical alum from the 1950s, wrote to me not that long ago, "We all owe Mr. Warner a great debt for building that beautiful space for us to enjoy."

The public once spent a great deal of money on the beautiful Waterplace Park, which has re-defined the nature and economy of the city. Previous generations, even as the credit union crisis caused havoc, were building for a different future. We must do the same.    


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