OP-ED: And That's the Way It is...

The American Rescue Plan Act: Providence’s Opportunity of the Century

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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 PROCESS

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. 

 

WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?

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.

 

IDEAS & WAYS TO IMPLEMENT THEM 

  • Improve public safety with new equipment (more rescue squads, which are less expensive but more often used than ladder trucks, for example) while improving outcomes by increasing mandatory training and continuing education for police officers. 
  • Work with the Small Business Association or Rhode Island Foundation to create a neighborhood loan/grant program for important businesses that will disappear without support. And, target minority-owned businesses that did not access loans through the Paycheck Protection Program due to lack of awareness, lack of connectivity, fear (if undocumented) or lack of technical assistance. Keep the fabric of our diverse neighborhoods intact.
  • Operate the City like a business and address customer needs and wants for sustainable change.
  • Hire an independent consulting firm (like McKinsey or Bain) to look at City Government department by department and make the City more efficient and functional with everything on the table. 
  • Embrace new technology and consider using more outside vendors (many of them new businesses possibly started by experienced employees more interested in working from home). It will save money, increase efficiency, and create more control and accountability while boosting the workforce and the economy.
  • Install a new computer system that’s been promised but can now be afforded so that everyone is on the same page and up-to-date to provide greater functionality for people doing business with the City.
  • Consolidate office space in City-owned buildings and then invest in repurposing excess property for more effective uses: tourism, parks and recreation, perhaps even affordable housing if possible. Add energy efficiency and solar panels where viable.  
  • Education is the biggest problem in Providence. Period. $400 million in school infrastructure bonds are in place and that’s a big start. The State’s takeover seems stalled, but when that gets fixed all of these other structural changes should help the system to keep improving.
 

WHAT WILL THIS ACCOMPLISH?

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
pension liability.  

The good news is that there’s even some money left over from the previous bond to start to address the infrastructure issues.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

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.

Comments

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AJR2025

There's many things I can suggest from infrastructures, to main roads, secure playgrounds for children, etc. One of my main concerns is the unsecured bike ridings throughout the neighborhoods. It's very annoying and dangerous for EVERYONE!! Okay, so I'm aware the bikes have to have their tags but it's not helping the problem. I've watched carts with an adult and toddler on lap cruising thru streets!!! That soccer field downtown should've been made a field for bike riders!! Please find them a Lot to handle their riding fever. There's no need that after all these years, accidents, and fatalities, this situation is continuously ongoing!! Unfair to state residents, law enforcement workers, and riders. Make the Change!! It's in the state's power before gets wasted!!

Tuesday, May 4