Providence, sitting on a financial precipice, will receive around $130 million from The American Rescue Plan Act, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to set a new course for the future survival of the City. It can be used wisely. Or, it will be foolishly wasted on short-term, shortsighted solutions and questionable pet projects. That’s why it’s so critical the powers that be get it right.
Of course, this new windfall comes with strings: The money comes in two disbursements and must be spent before December 31, 2024. It can’t be used to pay down pensions or fill in holes created by tax cuts. And, strict reporting and compliance is required or we could have to pay the money back.
The Mayor will develop a plan and send it to the City Council for approval or changes. Already, talk of major climate change items and a huge Kennedy Plaza water park have leaked out (no pun intended). And, undoubtedly, there are city councilors who already have their own agendas for portions of the money. Complicating things still further is that many of participants in the decision-making are also auditioning for higher positions up the political ladder next year.
The American Rescue Plan Act was finally agreed to and passed by moderate and progressive Democrats with very different ideas and agendas. Rather than nitpick the details, it seems more important to take advantage of the unique opportunity Providence has been given in two important ways. First is to use the funds as wisely and effectively as possible and solicit the best professional and community help to ensure that happens. But simultaneously, there must be an all-out effort to take advantage of new technology and alternative work environments that have emerged this past year to significantly lower costs and streamline the City’s operations. It’s being done in the private sector and the government should follow.
We’ve spoken to financial experts, government experts, business leaders, insiders and outsiders, and there are many common threads that could put Providence on the path to being fiscally sound. The bottom line is that the City must use this windfall to create a better future for all of the residents, not treat it as cash that fell out of a Brink’s truck and must be spent before anyone knows that it’s missing.
If all of these items above were implemented, Providence would be closer to being fiscally sound with a lower cost of government while providing relief for all taxpayers, both residential and commercial. There would be excess revenue to make continual and timely infrastructure improvements while also reducing the unfunded
The good news is that there’s even some money left over from the previous bond to start to address the infrastructure issues.
Consultants can offer direction on best practices and structural changes, but we have local expertise with inside historical knowledge that will gladly throw their two cents in. Some of the more obvious choices: Neil Steinberg, president & CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation (no one knows the whole community better); Angel Taveras, a product of our public schools himself, successful attorney, and a well-respected former mayor; and Angus Davis, a locally grown super star entrepreneur with an interest in education. Don’t let this important local input go to waste.