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Providence Budget: Will the General Assembly Come Through?

Saturday, May 07, 2011

 

In his first budget address last week, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras called for shared sacrifice from everyone – including the General Assembly, which is being asked to approve a slew of bills that could generate over $25 million for the city.

Along with calling for cuts in virtually every city department, on-street, overnight parking fees and other cost-saving methods, Taveras appealed directly to lawmakers on Smith Hill Monday, pleading with them to give him the flexibility needed to solve the city’s fiscal problems.

The legislation Taveras is asking the General Assembly to approve includes a 25 percent tax on colleges and universities, a shift in health care for retired city workers, the ability to collect fees for fire hydrants and fire alarm boxes, and $4.6 million from the MAST program in Governor Chafee’s proposed budget. If the General Assembly agrees to pass each bill, the city could expect to bring in $26,550,000, cutting the $110 million structural deficit by nearly a quarter.

“If these bills do not pass, this city will not survive this fiscal hurricane,” Taveras said. “As I stated during my Inaugural Address, ‘From Westerly to Woonsocket, from Burrillville to Bristol, we are all in this together. We all have an interest in our capital city – the beating heart of our state.’”

Speaker: Willing To Work With The Mayor

And while members of his City Council remain hesitant about supporting a tax increase with so many city residents struggling to make ends meet, some General Assembly members say they are willing to support Taveras in his quest to help the city get back on firm financial footing.

While no hearings regarding the city have been scheduled by the General Assembly as of now, House Speaker Gordon Fox (lower left), whose law office used to share a building with Taveras, has indicated a willingness to support the mayor.

Fox said he had a meeting with Taveras earlier in the week to learn more about what Taveras has called a “category five” fiscal storm.

“I met with Mayor Taveras this week and he briefed me on his very difficult budget situation,” Fox said. “I’m aware of the seriousness of the problems he and the City of Providence are facing and I will continue to work with him to address as many of the needs he cited in his budget proposal as possible.”

Will Not Have To Vote On Tax Hike

One issue it appears the Assembly will not have control over is the mayor’s proposed 5.25 percent tax raise.  According to the Report on the Property Tax Cap for fiscal year 2011 put out by the Department of Revenue, the city may be allowed to exceed the cap if it qualifies under one or more provisions.

These provisions include an exemption from the cap if: a city or town experiences a loss in totally nonproperty tax revenue; the city experiences an “emergency” situation involving health costs, retirement contributions or utility expenditures; the city forecasts or experiences debt services expenditures which exceed the prior year's debt service expenditures by an amount greater than the percentage increase; or the city experiences substantial growth in its tax base as the result of major new construction.

It isn’t clear yet whether Providence qualifies for any of these provisions, but if it does, the city will only need 4/5ths approval from the City Council to approve the tax hike.

A Noble Cause

State Rep. Scott Slater, who works in City Hall, heard Taveras’ message loud and clear. Slater said tough times calls for tough decisions, and he is willing to support Mayor Taveras should he have to vote on the proposed bills. 

Slater said the Mayor explored all other alternatives before his proposal, and he believes this is the best option for turning the city around.

“I applaud him for having the vision to do what is appropriate for the city's long term stability.” Slater said. “I plan to support the mayor's proposed tax increase and join alongside him to fight for the city's legislative agenda at the State House. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the House and ultimately having them join the mayor and myself in this noble cause.”

Undecided

Michael Tarro, who replaced Steven Costantino in the State House, said he plans to take a close look at all legislation involving the City of Providence. Tarro said he is cognizant of the difficult situation facing the city.

“I am particularly sensitive to the needs of Providence, being a lifelong resident and state representative of a district mostly comprising the Federal Hill area of Providence, and I am well aware of the challenges Providence now faces,” Tarro said. “At the same time, as a state representative I am mindful of the resources available to the state. I look forward to working with Mayor Taveras and his staff on all of their legislative priorities.”

Passing The Buck To Cities And Towns

But Chris Blazejewski, who represents a portion of the East Side of Providence and was a supporter of Taveras’ campaign for mayor, said it is important to remember the bigger picture. The state cannot continue to restrict funding to cities and towns, a move that often results in increased property taxes or car taxes.

Blazejewski said it is clear the state needs to do more for its cities and towns.

"The mayor's proposed budget is a reminder that the state needs to work to implement a responsible budget that does not continue to cut services and aid while passing the buck to cities and towns, forcing them to raise property taxes year after year."

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