Brett Smiley is a candidate for mayor of Providence. He previously served as chief operating officer of the City of Providence, chief of staff to Gov. Gina Raimondo and director of administration for the State of Rhode Island.
Thanks to President Joe Biden’s leadership and the hard work of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation, Providence is about to get an enormous infusion of federal dollars.
Many politicians will seize the moment to propose grand new ideas, but we cannot responsibly use this funding to create new programs that will add to our structural deficit once this money runs out. What we can — and should — do is take this opportunity to get back to the basics and make things a little easier: to finally put all city services online, make it easier to launch and grow a local business, improve our streets and sidewalks, and make progress on our long-term debts.
Let’s look at the city’s ambitious $222-million capital improvement plan. Rather than waiting 30 years to pay back a loan with interest, why not use the roughly $130 million in federal stimulus funds to make those improvements now? Let’s use this federal money now to take on long-neglected road, sidewalk and sewer projects, and finally make our perennial pothole and flooding issues problems of the past.
Let’s also look at our city’s woefully outdated digital infrastructure. How is it that, in 2021, taxpayers still need to physically go to City Hall to pay a bill or get a copy of a document? There is no reason a small-business owner or a working parent should be forced to take a day off work to take care of an errand that should be online. Digitizing these systems can be expensive, which is why it has been kicked down the road year after year in favor of more pressing needs. That stops now. Let’s use this funding to make sure anyone with a computer or smart phone can do as much of their business online as possible without ever stepping foot in City Hall.
Finally, we should take a hard look at making an additional payment to the city’s pension fund. Providence’s unfunded pension liability of approximately $1 billion hangs over all fiscal decisions, driven in large part by the failures of city leaders decades ago to make critical payments. The federal funds won’t be able to directly go to the pension fund, but smart management should be able to provide relief to the budget, making an extra payment feasible. An extra payment now would show retirees and state leaders that, when possible, the city continues to pay down the debts incurred decades ago.
As Rhode Island’s director of administration, I oversaw our state’s first influx of more than $1 billion in federal funding. We maximized every federal dollar that was made available to us, and when COVID cases spiked across the country in December and forced states to once again tighten restrictions, we were one of the only states with enough money to help small businesses continue to navigate the crisis.
Providence has a golden opportunity to do the same — to maximize this new funding in a way that best serves every business and every resident. The residents of Providence don’t need more unsustainable promises, they need practical improvements to their daily lives. This funding presents that opportunity. It is time to embrace the chance to solve real problems, help real people, and build a City Hall that puts residents first.