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Rhode Island's urban agenda

State of the City
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  May 4, 2011

img_strongerprovday_main

If you care about Rhode Island's struggling cities, this is — to put it mildly — a rather important moment.

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras has declared a "category five" fiscal storm and is moving to shutter schools. Pawtucket recently won special permission from the General Assembly to borrow millions to cover the bills. And Cranston is dealing with a staggering pension problem.

But it's nothing a little tomato sauce and mozzarella can't remedy. At least, that's the hope.

On Wednesday, May 11, from 3 to 5 pm, the Taveras administration will host a "Stronger Providence" lobbying day at the State House, complete with pizza from Caserta, beer from Trinity Brewhouse, and a smattering of Asian and Latino fare.

The idea is to showcase Providence as the economic and cultural hub of the state and to suggest, rather bluntly, that state lawmakers play a role in bringing the capital city to health.

Other municipalities, sans the pepperoni, are speaking with similar urgency — on their own, through organizations like the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, or both.

The hope is that the headline-grabbing fiscal meltdowns in cities here and across the nation will end a rather brutal run at the State House.

"One could only describe the last three legislative sessions as abysmal because of the mass losses in state aid for cities and towns," says Daniel Beardsley, Jr., executive director of the League of Cities and Towns.

Indeed, Beardsley puts the state cuts in municipal aid at some $300 million over the last three years. And that's not his only beef.

While the state has moved to reform its own troubled pension system — requiring workers to stay on the job longer, reforming disability pension rules, and the like — it has declined requests to impose similar restrictions on municipal employees.

Discouraging, no doubt. But the Rhode Island's mayors and city councils aren't giving up.

Beardsley says the league is pushing, this session, for four major items: municipal pension reform, a measure that would make it easier for cities to join together and regionalize services, the power to trim retiree health care benefits, and the development of a multi-city trust to cover the huge, unfunded cost of those benefits.

There is plenty of reason to be skeptical about the chances for passage this year. Many of these measures are sure to face opposition from organized labor. And all represent the sort of big, complicated change that the state's part-time legislature likes to sit on for several years.

Moreover, the General Assembly's limited bandwidth is sure to be plenty taxed by the looming budget fight and the wrenching debate over same-sex marriage and civil unions.

Cities and towns will also be forced to play some defense this session. Public employee unions, emboldened by victories in the last election, are pushing hard on two categories of bills.

One would expand the use of binding arbitration in labor disputes; binding arbitration, city officials maintain, usually favors labor. The second would keep labor contracts in force — or "evergreen" — if they expire without a new deal in place. "Evergreen" contracts, city officials say, would give unions little incentive to accept concessions at the bargaining table.

It will, in short, be a steep climb. But city officials hope a dynamic troika of newish mayors — Taveras in Providence, Allan Fung in Cranston, and Don Grebien in Pawtucket — can join with Warwick's politically savvy Scott Avedesian to improve the clout of Rhode Island's urban centers in the long run.

A few anchovies might help.

  Topics: This Just In , State House, Allan Fung, General Assembly,  More more >
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ARTICLES BY DAVID SCHARFENBERG
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