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8 Questions with Providence City Council President Aponte

Sunday, April 05, 2015


Council President Luis Aponte

In a wide ranging interview with Providence City Council President Luis Aponte, Aponte hit on issues including budget constraints, education challenges -- and raised serious concerns about the appointment of Parks and Recreation Director nominee Wendy Nilsson.  

Slides:  See 8 Questions with Council President Aponte BELOW

Nilsson, who worked part time overseeing the Partnership for Providence Parks with a $60,000 budget since 2012, was appointed by Elorza to head up the Parks Department with a $14 million budget.  The job description had called for ten years of relevant experience, the city charter calls for five. 

"I do have some trepidation," said Aponte of the appointment.  "One of the things that's difficult to understand for the average person is how substantial parks is in the city scale. It's responsible for city assets, not just Roger Williams Park, but the neighborhood parks. It's an important department that protects certain assets, and our young persons in particular."

Snow, Potholes, Streetcars, and More

Aponte, who has been on the Council since 1998 representing Ward 10, weighed in on a number of the City's concerns -- and offered his assessment of how Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has done so far. 

"Snow removal aside, I think he's done well," said Aponte.  

Elorza recently came under fire from the NAACP and State Representative Ray Hull for appointing all white senior level positions.  Hull said he has sent two letters to the Mayor requesting he create a liaison position for the African American community, to which Hull said he has not heard back.  

"The question is really one of, 'Do they feel they have access?' If not, then it's incumbent on us to make sure every opportunity for folks who feel left out have venues and access to elected leaders.  If that means an office, or ombudsman, than sure, we should consider it," said Aponte. 'It's the same if  developers in the business community said they needed to be heard -- it's the same as a creating a small business liaison position -- if there are folks that feel they don't have access - whether real or perceived -- that needs to be acknowledged."


Related Slideshow: Eight Questions with Luis Aponte - April 4, 2015

Providence City Council President Luis Aponte sat down with GoLocal to talk about his first few months as the helm of the body, the challenges facing the city -- and his thoughts on possible solutions.  

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How serious is the budget deficit?

"We'll have a better sense in the next couple of weeks. We just allowed for the [city] bond refinancing so we could get some savings -- the City Council expedited the process to allow for that to occur.  It allows counsel to test the market to see when the window is right.  The savings floor is $6 million to $8 million. It's not a term change, rather it's just taking advantage of the interest rates. 

[The Fiscal Year 2015] budget will come close to being on budget, there may be some small deficit.  Part of the bond refinancing helped change that, depending on when that occurs. We've got a briefing on the collection rate coming soon, so we'll know what the structural deficit is. The range for that right now is  around $2 million to $5 million for FY15.  It could be more, but we'll have a better sense soon.  The outlook for FY16 is really it's too early to speculate.  The one-timers this year were about $7 million - some of them were realized, some of them weren't.  But we have to account for that."

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How does Providence fix its schools?

"There are a couple things we can do immediately that would have a direct impact on outcomes. If you think about what our kids are able to do in the school year, we do as well as other schools.  But evidence suggests that because we have few enrichment programs, there's a fallback during the summer months. Suburban kids retain, urban kids fall back.  If we made an investment in summer programs, we can do that, and all the evidence suggest it was a big impact.  We think of schools as a service, we need to think of it as a way to attract residents and economic development tool.

In the lives of our students, in the urban centers, kids in our schools can move one, two, three times a year.  Housing instability has a major impact -- we need affordable housing options. Workforce housing, sustainable rentals, and homeownership -- that involves HUD, state, and city dollars. We're looking at that in terms of a policy direction.

The third is the bigger ticket -- lifting the moratorium on school construction.  We need to make sure that all of our kids provide a high quality.  The questions becomes as what is the need -- is it the needs of students? We will need to expand at the upper grades levels, in terms of capacity It's early to tell. It may mean a significant shift of students and schools, or it may mean construction of a new high school."

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How does the city address infrastructure needs?

"One of the things we need to do -- we took a chunk out of our needs when we passed the $40M bond, but need to develop a plan that's more intentional and strategic.  We're hoping for a revised needs assessment shortly to identify a better way to fix potholes and prevent potholes.  Part of the reason the roads are where they are is that they're constantly opened for private infrastructure purpose. The PUC needs to see that for anything short of an emergency, there needs to be better oversight about the opening and closing of the roads.  The city has very little oversight over private utilities -- it's the PUC that directs that the requirement that whoever opens it returns to the condition it was before the work is done."

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The Mayor has appointed all-white personnel to the most top-level positions. What does this mean for a minority-majority city?  

"Start with the general proposition that the more diverse the voices, the better the conversation, and the outcome and decisions. I commend them for their work making sure that boards and commissions are diverse -- I'd hope they would replicate that in other positions forthcoming.  

[Representative] Ray Hull sent them three letters and didn't hear back. The question is really one of, do these groups feel they have access? If not, then its incumbent on us to make sure every opportunity for folks to feel left out to have venues and access to elected leaders."

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Parks and Rec

What is your view on Wendy Nilsson's nomination to Parks and Recreation?

"I recently asked for an opinion from the city solicitor regarding he ambiguity in the charter.  The board of parks commissioners is clearly tasked with appointing the director of parks.  The jurisdiction is theirs.  I do have some trepidation -- one of the things that's difficult to understand is that parks is a substantial party in the city scale. I'm cautiously hopeful she would be able to direct that dept for all the folks.  There are other questions that need to be asked to the board -- its important they understand their responsibility, to ensure the the well-being of park system."

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How do you think Mayor Elorza has done to date?

"Snow removal aside, I think he's done well. We need to expand the departments that are responsible for snow removal especially since 30 years ago we had a much bigger DPW.  We've really slimmed it down. It's probably the smallest its been in the last 100 years.  They still have to plow the same number of roads.  We're competing with other cities and towns for private plowers  So if parks departments are acquiring vehicles, they should have the capability to have plows on them."

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What is in the best interest of the city with regard to the PawSox?

"What's in the city's best interest [if the Pawtucket Red Sox move to Providence] is a deal that does two things.  From a design and build standpoint, looking at a building construct, it should be done in the context of an urban ballpark -- and placed in a location that allows for further development.  I think [the current proposed location] is a little limited in terms of other opportunities.  It becomes a struggle. I think we need to be explore other options.  The old Victory Plated site [on Allens Ave] has some land -- it could provide an option if structured correctly. 
In terms of a deal, I'm not going to pretend to know what they're thinking.  There have been no concrete talks with anyone at this point."

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Can streetcars work? 

"We're releasing an RFP for engineering and structural assessments as a precursor to apply for next round of federal funds, to position us better.  
We didn't get as much money as we hoped for, the bigger portion of costs were put on us.  So the RFP is to look for efficiencies and savings, and looking to see if a new route is more ideal.  One of the big questions is are there better ways to move people around -- the challenge is how you move them around in an efficient, cost-effective, environmentally responsible way. I know Portland has touted their system.  If we're smart about it, we still need to address transit in a large way."


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