SLIDES: State of the City Winners & Losers
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
In a half-hour speech focused largely on the many ways in which his administration has dealt with a massive $110 million dollar structural deficit he inherited, Taveras told those in attendance that Providence has not only made it through the worst of its struggles but is on pace for a recovery.
“As I stood before you on February 13, 2012, Providence was running out of cash, and running out of time,” Taveras said. “In the months that followed, there were some who said Providence could not avoid filing for bankruptcy. Today it is my privilege to deliver a much more hopeful report on the State of our City: Providence is recovering.”
Taveras’ speech highlighted the concessions that unions and retirees made to overhaul the city’s pension problems and he lauded the voluntary payments that tax-exempt institutions came forward with in the city’s time of need.
Still, he said, much has to be done to keep Providence on its current path.
“Through collaborative efforts and shared sacrifice, we have all but eliminated our City’s $110 million structural deficit, and we expect to end this year with a balanced budget,” he said. “Working together, we have accomplished what few believed possible.”
While Taveras’ speech was short on specific proposals the city should expect when he unveils his budget this spring, there were a number of winners and losers from the Mayor’s State of the City address.
To say Taveras has established himself as a major threat in the 2014 race for Governor is an understatement.
The Providence Mayor came in at a time when the city was in absolute disarray and just about as low a situation as a new mayor could expect to come into and that gave him carte blache to pin all the blame for potential failures on previous administrations and take all the credit for successes.
And that’s why last night’s speech was such a victory for the Providence Mayor.
Last year at this time, Taveras was harping on all the things wrong with the city. Now, 12 months later, things are clearly more optimistic and it looks, at least politically, that much of that can be attributed to him.
The key takeaway for Taveras, however, will be whether or not the city can actually balance its books as he proclaimed they would and right now, that doesn’t look very rosy as the city still has an estimated $15.2 million budget gap to deal with midway through the fiscal year.
Regardless, the State of the City address was a big difference in both tone and result for Taveras and, for now at least, he emerges as a winner from it.
It’s easy to say the 2014 governor’s race is still a year or so away but the truth of the matter is that this is prime time for candidates to begin jockeying for position in what is sure to be a crowded field.
Enter Rhode Island General Treasurer Gina Raimondo.
While she won’t fully commit to a run at the position quite yet, many expect it’s only a formality at this point as Raimondo has spent a year building her resume and credentials as a serious threat to Lincoln Chafee’s re-election chances.
Her work with state pension reform has been heralded nationwide and had established her as the de-factor challenger to Chafee should she decide to run.
Now? Well, not she appears to have company.
Highlighting the city of Providence’s own efforts with pension reform, Taveras laid the ground work for what could be a very interesting debate if both he and Raimondo square off in the gubernatorial race.
Whose accomplishments are more impressive? Raimondo for helping the state win landmark gains in the battle for pension reform or Taveras for helping Providence (potentially) climb out of a $110 million dollar structural deficit?
Raimondo still might have the inside track at dethroning Chafee but there’s a long way to go between now and 2014 and, if nothing else, last night’s State of the City address proved Taveras will be a formidable candidate if he chooses to run.
Gun Control Advocates
In what was the latest in a long line of speeches by politicians taking aim at the issue, gun control advocates were left to rejoice last night following Taveras’ speech if for no other reason than the fact that the Mayor highlighted guns as a priority of his this year and promised to work together with leaders from throughout Rhode Island to find a solution.
“I am committed to passing reasonable, common-sense gun control legislation this year that puts Rhode Island in line with our neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut,” Taveras said. “I have reached out to every Mayor and municipal leader in Rhode Island to work together on this issue. As the leaders of our state’s cities and towns, we will be most effective if we coordinate our local efforts and speak with one voice at the State House and in Washington, D.C.”
While the majority of Taveras’ speech last night was positive and rosy about the current state of Providence, it’s hard to deny that the Mayor’s comments on the city’s current standing in education leaves something to be desired.
“There is much work to be done,” Taveras said. “Only 46 percent of Providence’s fourth graders were reading on grade level last year. We have set an ambitious goal to have 70 percent of our students reading on grade level at the end of third grade in 2015.”
Calling his goal of having slightly less than three out of every four students reading at grade level “ambitious” is no doubt a knock on the status quo in Providence and while Taveras boosted about a slew of new programs his administration is working on this year, what progress is made is yet to be determined.
Either way, the numbers don’t lie. Right now, Providence’s students are struggling. The State of the City made that much clear.
Joe Elliott & Bill Newe
As is customary in many political speeches, Mayor Taveras had a special anecdote to share with viewers last night regarding two city employees who went above and beyond the typical call of duty.
His highlighted employees were Joe Elliott and Bill Newell, inspectors in the Office of Inspections and Standards, that recently helped a Providence woman who was living without heat.
“Mr. Elliott and Mr. Newell thought that without some kind of intervention, the City might need to condemn this woman’s house and relocate her in order to prevent her from suffering,” Taveras said. “So they worked around the clock Friday, and kept working when they were off duty on Saturday and Sunday to make sure this resident’s heating problem was fixed.”
According to Taveras, Elliott and Newell worked with National Grid and with contractors who volunteered their time and the heating problem was fixed at no charge.
“They weren’t being paid, and they weren’t even asked to do it,” he said. “They did it because it was the right thing to do for this woman and for our City.”
It’s not every day your boss calls you out in front of the entire state. That it was for a positive reason alone makes Joe and Bill winners.
The City's Credit Rating
Taveras’ speech was optimistic about Providence’s finances, but the fact remains that the city still has a ways to go in order to get back to a balanced budget.
While the mayor says his administration expects they’ll be there by the end of the fiscal year, the most current projections by the city’s Internal Auditor projects there’s $15.2 million deficit looming.
That’s a lot of cuts.
Taveras pointed to a report by Moddy’s Investor Service that said several years worth of year-end deficits have left Providence “with little room for error in the event of future operating pressures,” and it’s hard to argue with that.
Throwing in a projected $15.2 million area of concern doesn’t help matters any.
Last week, Taveras announced that the city’s new recycling program has improved recycling by 67 percent at a potential savings to Providence of $250K. It was a point he harped on again last night before giving environmental activists even more reason to smile.
“This spring, our Lots of Hope initiative will begin converting vacant lots into urban gardens maintained by residents,” he said. “We are also moving forward to implement a citywide biking plan and a pilot plan for composting across our City. And, mark your calendars now, we are working to coordinate what we hope will be the largest volunteer, citywide cleanup that Providence has ever mobilized on Saturday, April 20.”
Add in a win over “Big Tobacco” that Taveras highlighted and it’s hard to argue those who want to see a greener and more “Earth-friendly” Capitol City had plenty to be pleased with in the mayor’s address.
While it sounds harsh to say retirees are losers from Taveras’ speech, the simple fact is that most of the mayor’s touted success came at their expense.
“Last month, Providence’s police officers joined with Providence’s firefighters and retirees in agreeing to a landmark reform of our City’s pension system,” he said. “The agreement caps pensions, eliminates 5 and 6% compounded COLAs that were strangling our system, suspends all other cost of living raises and moves retirees over 65 into Medicare. It saves our pension system from eventual, inevitable insolvency, and reduces Providence’s unfunded liability by an estimated $200 million.”
Taveras touted the concessions made from Providence police officers as a key factor in the city’s turnaround but while the department will benefit from a federal grant that leads to a new Academy with 18 officers, the concessions made since last year are a lot larger than what they got in return.
The success Taveras’ touted last night wouldn’t have been possible without help from retirees but one has to wonder: with the city still “recovering”, will they be asked for more in the future?
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