Category Archives: City Issues

This Spring, I have written letters to constituents concerning recent devleopments in the City and the City Council.My May 10 letter (link here: 5-10_Budget_and_Dog_Ordinance.pdf) provides an overview of the Mayor’s budget and a discussion of the controversy involving access of dogs to City parks.

October 6 Ward Letter

I hope you are enjoying Columbus Day weekend. This week’s letter discusses regulation of student housing, regulation of short-term rentals, tax stabilization agreements and the school bus driver strike.

On Tuesday, October 9 at 3:30 p.m. at 444 Westminster Street, a committee of the City Plan Commission hold a public meeting will review possible legislation to regulate student housing. Robert Azar from the Planning Department of Planning will share with us the Department’s ideas for both student housing and short-term rentals, such as AirBnB. Our neighborhood meeting, co-sponsored by Councilwoman LaFortune and Helen Anthony, the Democratic candidate to succeed me in Ward 2, will take place on Wednesday, October 10 at 6:00 p.m. at the Nathan Bishop Middle School Cafeteria. Please try to come and share your ideas.

At Thursday night’s meeting, the City Council gave second and final passage to a tax stabilization agreement (TSA) for the College Hill Edge development on Steeple Street. Some of you shared with me your opposition to this project, primarily for two reasons. The first was that it would be bad for the neighborhood. I attended the City Plan Commission and spoke in opposition to the additional height they acquired, which I believe aggravated some negative impacts. Others noted that the project would not provide relief for those in need of affordable housing, which is also true. With that said, I voted in favor of the ordinance because it was a project in excess of $50 million, and it met the standard criteria (apprentice training, local hiring efforts, etc.) to qualify for a TSA based on prior history. Because of our City’s high commercial property tax rate, the TSA is generally the only way to encourage new development. I would like to see the City enact a standard TSA similar to other cities such as Philadelphia to avoid the delay and ordeal involved with the current one-off proceedings. It may be possible to include some contribution ot affordable housing as part of such a standard document, consistent with the overall goal of building the City’s tax base.

This past Monday (October 1), the School Department Oversight Committee met to, among other things, review the School Department’s efforts to mitigate the impacts of the school bus driver strike. We learned that the City has essentially no leverage to resolve the situation, which was described as a national dispute. The national Teamsters union wants to require First Student to contribute to their national multi-employer pension fund, and First Student’s opposes because of the lack of adequate funding for the multi-employer fund, and the risk of First Student’s becoming liable for the entire fund’s shortfalls. While we cannot adjudicate the merits of their positions, the bottom line is that Providence students are being hurt by this national dispute, and the current contract, which was shaped by First Student’s leverage as the only viable bidder, makes their problem our problem. The Superintendent noted the heroic efforts of parents, students and educators to cope with this crisis, but it is creating a strain and many children are falling through the cracks. At the end of the day, it is clear we need to restructure the City’s school bus program to make it more resilient and less vulnerable to any vendor’s problems.

Sincerely,

sam signature

September 30 Ward Letter

We are now in full campaign season for the decisions we will make in November for, among other positions, the United States Senate, the Governor and the Mayor.  In the meantime, the City’s work continues.  This week’s letter will discuss the school bus driver strike, the teacher union’s modification of its “work to rule” program and a request for your suggestions of neighborhood organizations and projects worthy of modest financial support.

Download a pdf copy.

The school bus vendor (First Student) stopped providing bus service on Thursday due to a strike by its bus drivers.  Earlier last week, the School Department Oversight Committee reviewed what contractual rights the Providence Public Schools had in light of the termination of service by its contractor.  We learned that the contract contains a “force majeure” clause that exempts the vendor from responsibility to the Providence Public Schools for a list of conditions, the bulk of which describe catastrophic events beyond First Student’s control.  We were surprised, however, to learn that the list also includes the possibility of a strike, which in my opinion is an event within First Student’s control.  According to a Report by WPRI-TV, the School Department solicited bids that place this responsibility on the vendor’s tab; however, First Student negotiated a change to relieve its responsibility.  While I do not know the details of the negotiations, I suspect that First Student had extensive leverage due to the absence of other competitive and/or qualifying bids.  When I was on the School Board in 2000-02, other vendors were reluctant to bid for Providence because we required them to garage their buses (and pay property tax) in Providence.  While this requirement may be beneficial for the City’s tax revenues, the School Department Oversight Committee will ask the administration to develop other alternatives that would allow more bidders and the benefits of competition in awarding the next contract.  The School Department Oversight Committee will be meeting on Monday, October 1 at 6:00 to receive an update concerning the impacts of this unfortunate strike.

Also at last week’s meeting, the School Department Oversight Committee received a brief update from the Superintendent concerning contract negotiations with the Providence Teachers Union and the status of their decision to “work to rule,” under which teachers would refrain from performing any work beyond the specific requirements of the contract.  On this basis, teachers had declined to write college reference letters for high school students, but the Superintendent reported last week that teachers have reconsidered this particular measure, and are now writing college recommendation letters.  I believe this was a wise move by the teachers, because most parents with whom I spoke were blaming the teachers union, not the administration, for this action.  Some parents asked whether it would make sense to negotiate this and other types of “optional” teacher work into the next contract. I shared my view that the contract (which currently is around 70 pages in length) should be shorter, rather than longer, and that it would be a mistake to view the contract as the maximum amount of work that teachers will perform, as well as the minimum.  Instead, most teachers in my experience are highly skilled professionals who are truly committed to the success of their students, and their individual initiatives should be encouraged and appreciated.

As a result of my decision not to seek re-election, I plan to close out my campaign account by the end of this year.  This has allowed me to show my appreciation for the classroom teachers at four of our neighborhood schools (King, Gregorian, Bishop and Classical) by working with their PTO’s (King, Gregorian and Bishop) and Alumni Association (Classical) to purchase and distribute $50 Staples gift cards for each teacher to pay for classroom supplies that they often have to fund out of their own pockets.  (I also am working with the School Department to identify a conduit to make a similar contribution to Hope High School’s teachers, as campaign finance laws do not permit me to contribute the funds directly to the school.)  While this effort will require the majority of the funds in my account, I still will have a remaining balance that I can contribute to charitable organizations.  I welcome your suggestions for modest gifts, particularly for groups or organizations that operate in our neighborhood and/or benefit our neighbors.  Please feel free to send me an email with your suggestions.

Sincerely,

sam signature

September 23 Ward Letter

I hope you are enjoying this beautiful first weekend of Autumn.  This week’s letter discusses the School Department’s compliance with a Department of Justice investigation of its English Language Learner program, preparations for a possible school bus driver strike, and an upcoming community meeting to discuss regulation of AirBnB and student housing.

On Monday, September 24, 2018 at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall, Third Floor, the School Department Oversight Committee will meet to review, among other things, the School Department’s English Language Learner (ELL) program and a potential strike by school bus drivers.

During the summer, the School Department announced that it had reached a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice (DOJ) concerning its program for English language learners (ELL).  It has been known for years that Rhode Island’s Hispanic students have the lowest performance on the national standardized tests, and the DOJ investigation highlighted many of the reasons why this is the case, including a significant deficit of qualified teachers.  The causes of this problem include a national shortage of qualified teachers and a State funding formula that does not provide adequate resources for this need.  When the General Assembly approved the current formula in 2010, I testified concerning this defect, and I repeated my concerns when the State reviewed the formula a few years ago.  This defect, which resulted from a political accommodation in 2010, makes Rhode Island’s formula an outlier nationally.  The DOJ settlement agreement calls for significant improvements without identifying a sustainable path to achieve them.  The School Department Oversight Committee will review the School Department’s plans asking, among other things, how the settlement will affect that Department’s overall program both for children learning the English language and the other children in the Providence Public Schools.

A vendor named First Student provides school bus service to Providence students, and it has reached an impasse with the Teamsters’ Union to which its bus drivers belong.  The bus drivers have taken a strike vote, and a strike is expected to begin Thursday, September 27.  The School Department Oversight Committee will ask the School Department to discuss its contingency plans publicly, and may enter executive session to inquire as to what legal remedies the School Department has when its vendor fails to provide the services it contracted to provide due to an internal problem, such as a strike by its bus drivers.

On Wednesday, October 10 at 6:00 p.m. at the Nathan Bishop Middle School Cafeteria, Councilwoman LaFortune, Ward 2 Democratic candidate Helen Anthony and I will co-host a neighborhood meeting to discuss efforts to regulate short-term rentals (such as AirBnb) and student housing in Providence.  Robert Azar, the Deputy Director of the Planning Department, will present the Department’s current thinking on both of these areas.

At a neighborhood meeting earlier this summer, Councilwoman Lafortune and I invited public comment concerning short-term rentals.  We learned that some of them had adverse neighborhood impacts, particularly where the property owner essentially served as an absentee landlord.  We also learned that AirBnB rentals help other Providence residents have reduced those impacts by renting out spare rooms while occupying the rest of their residence, or through careful screening of potential guests.  The Planning Department has been developing proposed legislation it will present to the City Plan Commission later this fall, and Mr. Azar will share the Department’s current thinking of how to enhance the benefits of short-term rentals while minimizing the adverse impacts.

Earlier this summer, the City Plan Commission organized a subcommittee to review regulation of student housing, following the discovery of a lease by a Providence landlord of a six-bedroom two-family house on College Hill to thirteen undergraduate students.  I introduced legislation the City Plan Commission endorsed that would place a 3-student limit on housing units in R-1 and R-1A zones (thus, a 2-family house could have a maximum of 3 students in each unit), while Councilman Yurdin introduced legislation I co-sponsored to place a limit of 4 undergraduate students in each unit in all zones, for which legislation Councilman Yurdin has withdrawn his support but which I still co-sponsor.  Neither measure has drawn broad support in the City Council.  The Planning Department is developing its own version that Mr. Azar will discuss at this meeting.  Please try to attend and share your ideas.

Sincerely,

sam signature

September 16 Ward Letter

On Tuesday night, I will join members of the Jewish community in observing Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  As part of my observance, I would like to ask you to forgive me for the wrongs I have committed against you during the past year.  I wish everyone else observing the holiday an easy fast and a fulfilling experience.  Returning to the municipal level, this letter will discuss the results of Wednesday’s primary on the City Council for the coming term.

Download a pdf copy.

The mayoral side of the City’s primaries points to continuity, as Mayor Elorza won the Democratic Party nomination for re-election.  Any contested election brings uncertainty, but he is favored to return to office in November.

The City Council has 15 seats, and the entire City Council for the past two terms has been filled with Democratic Party members.  As a result, the winners of last week’s primary (along with those other Democrats who did not have a primary opponent) are the presumptive members of next term’s City Council.  From this perspective, next year’s presumptive City Council will have four new members, from Wards 2, 8, 12 and 13.

In Ward 2, we nominated Helen Anthony to represent us next term.  Attending candidate forums and speaking with our neighbors during the campaign, I was impressed (though not surprised) by our high level of discussion, our knowledge of critical issues and the attention we paid to this campaign.  I am optimistic that presumptive Councilwoman-elect Anthony will do an excellent job.  I will be pleased to provide her with all the help I can over the coming months to ensure a smooth transition.

In Ward 8 (Reservoir Triangle neighborhood), my colleague Wilbur Jennings was defeated in his campaign for a third term.  In my opinion, Councilman Jennings was one of the unsung heroes of the City Council over the past two terms.  During the 2011-14 term, the City Council addressed several of the City’s critical problems (“fiscal hurricane,” pension reform, economic development, etc.) that were enacted by a divided (and sometimes closely divided) City Council with his support, while in the current term, Councilman Jennings has stood up against many of the abuses of the leadership team elected to begin the term.  As you may remember, this term began with the election of a Council President (Councilman Aponte) and Majority Leader (Councilman Jackson) who had lengthy records of campaign finance violations, and who were indicted during the term for felony crimes, leading each to resign his leadership position in disgrace.  Throughout these events, the members of the Aponte/Jackson faction continuously courted Councilman Jennings to join their side, one time coming to his house with bottle of wine as an inducement.  Councilman Jennings stood tall, supporting policies that benefitted his neighborhood and the City as a whole, rather than supporting the tactics other Council members pursued to extract an advantage for their particular ward (or wards) at the expense of the rest of the City.  Thanks to his vision and principles, the City is much better off.

More generally, now that we know who the likely City Council members are, my colleagues will be caucusing among themselves to form a leadership team of eight or more Council members who will vote as a block to fill the key leadership positions (President, Majority Leader and committee chairs).  I believe that many of the failures of this City Council term (such as the “zombie bond,” which was approved by 85% of the City’s voters, only to be blocked by the City Council “leadership” in a failed attempt to create multimillion dollar accounts for individual members to control) can be traced directly to the City Council’s poor judgment in electing the Aponte/Jackson team.  More generally, this leadership team clashed frequently with the Mayor, and will be remembered more for preventing the City’s progress than for allowing it, never mind advancing it.  We have seen some progress since Councilman Salvatore won election as City Council President late last year, but those results have been limited by the committee structure and other remnants of the Aponte/Jackson team.

It is my hope that we will not see a repeat of last term’s faction-driven group that put their individual careers and their individual wards’ interests above the well-being of the City as a whole.  While my status as a “lame duck” limits my effectiveness, I will contribute wherever I can to promoting a better City Council leadership team for the next term.

Sincerely,

sam signature

September 8 Ward Letter

September brings a new school year and the chance for a fresh start.  Sadly, this past Wednesday saw the untimely death of William Parsons, a beloved Central High School student who was the innocent victim of a shooting outside his school.  Our thoughts and prayers go out to William’s family and the school communities living through this tragedy.  While the other news from the City pales in comparison, this week’s letter will discuss the City Council’s votes last Thursday on the Hope Point Tower and ethics reform legislation.

Download a pdf copy.

After the extensive public hearing and the Ordinance Committee vote to recommend denial of the Hope Point Tower zoning change, I assumed that there was a sufficient record on which the City Council could vote on the proposal.   I was mistaken.  The City Council took a voice vote to return the measure to committee, apparently because leadership believed this was the only option on which there was a consensus.  I voted against the motion and asked that my vote be recorded, as I do not see the point in further review of a project that has been vetted this extensively.  Under the City procedures, the Ordinance Committee must schedule another public hearing if it wishes to consider amendments to the current proposal.

Even more disappointing was the City Council’s roll call vote to disapprove legislation that would disqualify members with felony indictments from serving in top City Council leadership positions, and suspending them from remaining in those positions if they are indicted during their term of office.  I first introduced this ordinance in 2016 after Kevin Jackson resigned from his position as Majority Leader after his embezzlement indictment, and pressed again for its passage after Luis Aponte resigned in disgrace from his position as City Council President following his felony arraignment in May, 2017.  At first, Mr. Aponte claimed he could not resign because his lawyer advised him it would be an admission of guilt.  This was legally untrue and probably factually untrue as well, but it demonstrated how Mr. Aponte viewed his elected position as personal property rather than as a public trust.  After a chaotic week, he finally resigned, claiming he was acting selflessly for the good of the City.  It therefore was surprising when, in last Thursday’s debate, Mr. Aponte returned to his pre-resignation talking points, arguing that officer positions were the personal property of the office holder, and should not be taken away merely because of the triviality of a felony indictment.  I was even more disappointed by the majority of City Council members, most of whom made the original mistake in 2015 of electing these two people to the top leadership position despite five-figure  unpaid fines, ethics violations and false campaign finance statements.  These Council members compounded their poor judgment on Thursday by failing to approve an ordinance that could prevent this type of harm from reoccurring.  In a television show earlier this term, two of the Council members who voted against ethics reform on Thursday (John Igliozzi and Jo-Ann Ryan) stated their interest in someday becoming Mayor of Providence.  I ask you to remember their votes against ethics reform should either of them (or any of their colleagues) ever ask for our vote for any public office in the future.

Please find the time to vote on Wednesday, September 12.  In addition to nominating party candidates for the November election, the Democratic primary will select an unopposed candidate to succeed me on the City Council, and the presumptive next State Representative in District 4 to succeed Aaron Regunberg.  Polling stations will be open from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.  To find out the location of your polling station, click here.

Sincerely,

sam signature

September 1 Ward Letter

I hope you are enjoying this beautiful Labor Day weekend.  This week’s letter discusses some issues related to the new school year, and some information I have assembled to answer questions you have asked me about the ongoing campaign to elect a new City Council representative for our ward.

Download a pdf copy.

The new school year will open with new challenges.  Over the summer, we learned that the United States Department of Justice has investigated the Providence School Department concerning the adequacy of its programs for students learning the English language.  The investigation will lead to a consent decree with specific milestones to spur action to solve a problem that has been known for several years.  The School Department has allocated approximately $1 million in the current budget to address this issue, but further commitments will be necessary.  The School Department Oversight Committee will meet on September 17 to discuss this and other issues.

A second issue facing the schools is a decision by the Providence Teachers Union to “work to rule” in light of a lack of progress in contract negotiations.  Under this decision, teachers refuse to perform any work beyond that specifically spelled out in the contract, which means that the union is urging teachers not to perform other non-contractual work on which students depend, such as writing college recommendations.  I believe that the teachers have a right to a contract, but I question whether their decision is fair to students.

Another possible issue is the risk of a strike by bus drivers (who are hired by the School Department’s private vendor).  The School Department has stated that it is working on contingency plans to address this possibility, and to communicate with parents about this potential disruption.

The campaign for the Ward 2 City Council seat I will be vacating at the end of this year has become very contentious, and many of you have asked me questions about the charges and the counter charges.  Some of these issues need to be addressed by the candidates themselves, but I would like to share with you my own analysis and research into the facts to try to clarify the record for your decision as voters.

People have asked me concerning a rumor they have heard that one candidate (Ryan Holt) works at the law firm that represents Jason Fane, the promoter of the Hope Tower Project on the I-195 land.  This rumor is not correct.  Mr. Fane’s attorney is Jeffrey Padwa, who for a while was associated with the Darrow Everett law firm where Ryan works.  Several months ago, Mr. Padwa opened his own independent law practice, and neither he nor Mr. Fane has any ties to the Darrow Everett law firm.

People also have asked me about two campaign flyers that Ryan Holt has mailed out in which he makes charges concerning Helen Anthony’s service on the Columbia City Council.  Based on that review and research, I compiled an Analysis of the contentions in the flyers.  I can summarize my findings as follows:

A controversy has arisen concerning two pieces of mailed literature in which one candidate for the City Council (Ryan Holt) has made accusations concerning the conduct of another candidate (Helen Anthony) while she served on the Columbia, Missouri City Council with regard to a road improvement project.  The first flyer identifies two sources for its factual information, namely an article from the Columbia Heart Beat blog, and a report from the Columbia Historic District Commission.  The second flyer cites the same two sources.  I have reviewed the two flyers and the two listed sources.  I also found two pieces of additional information from my own research, namely an article from Columbia Missouri public radio concerning Helen Anthony’s plans to resign her Columbia City Council seat, and an article from the Columbia Missourian concerning the eventual construction of the project.

The front of the first flyer states that Ms. Anthony was “implicated” in the Historic District Commission report of “violating City ordinances meant to prevent corruption.”  The report identifies two violations of City ordinances, namely failing to hold a stakeholder meeting (called an “interested parties” meeting) prior to voting on public improvement plans, and scheduling the public hearing before the City Council authorized the hearing to take place.  In both cases, the report identifies Mr. Glascock, the City Director of Public Works, as the official whose decisions violated these ordinances.  (See report, pages 5-16).  The report includes statements by Ms. Anthony to both stakeholders and the press that the “interested parties” meeting should take place, in compliance with the ordinance.  See Report, p. 7.  For that reason, I believe the use of the word “implicated” (which typically refers to involvement in commission of a crime) is misleading.

On the back of the flyer, there are two quotations from the Columbia Heart Beat article, the first being that Ms. Anthony was “deeply involved,” immediately followed by one describing “the alleged legal and ethical lapses.”  A review of the article shows that, consistent with the report, the “ethical lapses [which] were part of an effort by the city’s executive branch” were committed by Mr. Glascock, who was a member of the City government’s executive branch, not Ms. Anthony.  Instead, the article refers later to Ms. Anthony’s being “deeply involved in the planning” of the road project, not in Mr. Glascock’s decision to avoid the “interested parties” meeting she identified as being required.  In other words, I believe the quotations were presented out of order and out of context to imply a misleading conclusion.  (The Columbia Heart Beat article, but not the report, also refers to Section 12 of the Columbia City Charter, which prevents City Council members from dealing directly with City officials except for purposes of “inquiry.”  Ms. Anthony appears to have engaged in this permitted form of communication.)

The back of the flyer also states the following: “Soon after the controversy began, Helen Anthony resigned and moved to Providence.”  (emphasis in original)  This statement implies that the controversy led to Ms. Anthony’s decision to resign and leave.  I believe it is misleading because the key event that led to the controversy was Mr. Glascock’s October 21, 2012 decision to proceed with a hearing without a prior stakeholder meeting and/or City Council approval (see report, p. 9), which came after Ms. Anthony’s October 16, 2012 announcement (as reported in the article from Columbia Missouri public radio)  that, effective November 30, she was leaving the Columbia City Council to move to Providence with her husband.

The second flyer, which features a picture of a backhoe tearing down a building, asserts that Ms. Anthony was responsible for “demolished historic properties” (as stated on its front side), and “the destruction of several historic homes” (as stated on its back side).  In fact, according to the article from the Columbia Missourian, the project was completed several years later without the demolition of any buildings.  In other words, I believe the central charge of the second flyer is false.

I leave it to the candidates to debate the details of these issues beyond the specific statements contained in the flyers we received.

I hope you find this information useful as you develop your own thoughts about the candidates for the City Council.

Sincerely,

sam signature

Analysis of campaign flyers

A controversy has arisen concerning two pieces of mailed literature in which one candidate for the City Council (Ryan Holt) has made accusations concerning the conduct of another candidate (Helen Anthony) while she served on the City Council in Columbia, Missouri concerning a road improvement project.  The first flyer identifies two sources for its factual information, namely an article from the Columbia Heart Beat blog, and a report from the Columbia Historic District Commission.  The second flyer cites the same two sources.  I have reviewed the two flyers and the two listed sources.  I also found two pieces of additional information from my own research, namely an article from Columbia Missouri public radio concerning Helen Anthony’s plans to resign her Columbia City Council seat, and an article from the Columbia Missourian concerning the eventual construction of the project.

The front side of the first flyer states that Ms. Anthony was “implicated” in the Historic District Commission report of “violating City ordinances meant to prevent corruption.”  The report identifies two violations of City ordinances, namely failing to hold a stakeholder meeting (called an “interested parties” meeting) prior to voting on public improvement plans, and scheduling the public hearing before the City Council authorized the hearing to take place.  In both cases, the report identifies Mr. Glascock, the City Director of Public Works, as the official whose decisions violated these ordinances.  (See report, pages 5-16).  The report includes statements by Ms. Anthony to both stakeholders and the press that the “interested parties” meeting should take place.  See Report, p. 7.  For that reason, I believe the use of the word “implicated” is misleading.

The back of the flyer presents two quotations from the Columbia Heart Beat article, the first being that Ms. Anthony was “deeply involved,” immediately followed by one describing “the alleged legal and ethical lapses.”  A review of the article shows that, consistent with the report, it attributes the “ethical lapses [which] were part of an effort by the city’s executive branch” to Mr. Glascock, who was a member of the City government’s executive branch, not Ms. Anthony, who was part of the City’s legislative branch.  Instead, the article refers later to Ms. Anthony’s being “deeply involved in the planning” of the road project, not in Mr. Glascock’s decision to avoid the “interested parties” meeting she identified as being required.

The back of the flyer also states the following: “Soon after the controversy began, Helen Anthony resigned and moved to Providence.”  (emphasis in original)  This statement implies that the controversy led to her decision to resign and leave.  It is misleading because the key event that led to the controversy was Mr. Glascock’s October 21, 2012 decision to proceed with a hearing without a prior stakeholder meeting and/or City Council approval (see report, p. 9), which came after Ms. Anthony’s October 16, 2012 announcement that, effective November 30, she was leaving the Columbia City Council to move to Providence with her husband.

The second flyer, which features a picture of a backhoe tearing down a building, asserts that she was responsible for “demolished historic properties” on the front, and “the destruction of several historic homes” on the back.  In fact, according to the article from the Columbia Missourian, the project was completed several years later without the demolition of any buildings.

Mark Tracy For State Representative

While the City Council remains in its August recess, I write to explain why I am supporting Mark Tracy to serve as State Representative for District 4, where I live.

Download a pdf copy.

On Wednesday, September 12, Democratic voters in Rhode Island House District 4 will nominate a successor to State Representative Aaron Regunberg. We will choose between two talented and public-minded candidates who share similar policy positions on the issues of social justice that Aaron championed. After learning about the candidates for the past two months, I have decided to vote for Mark Tracy, because he has the best chance to build a strong partnership between our State and our City’s government and public schools.

Providence is blessed with many treasures that define and enrich our quality of life, but we face daunting challenges. While some families (including mine) have been able to obtain a quality public education for their children, the overall number of children in our neighborhood is disproportionately low, and the number of those children who attend private or parochial school is disproportionately high. Every year, many families with school age children leave our neighborhood for the suburbs. Other families and businesses decide not to locate in Providence because of their concerns about our public schools. A major challenge for our schools is an inadequate level of State aid, due to an inequitable funding formula that is cloaked in mathematical obscurity. The General Assembly is scheduled to revisit the formula soon, and Mark Tracy has identified this as a priority. Mark has the financial and analytic skill to understand the formula’s complexities. We need a more equitable formula that will support a quality public education for everyone across the City of Providence, while also providing an attractive option for our middle class families. Providence needs a strong middle class to prosper, and we need strong public schools to support a strong middle class. I believe Mark Tracy is best qualified to take on this issue.

The City’s paramount financial challenge is the $1 billion unfunded pension liability, which over the next 5-10 years will pose an existential threat to the City government’s ability to carry out its essential functions. Without help from the State, the City’s escalating pension costs will force cutbacks in city services, public safety and our public schools, drastically reducing our quality of life, and ultimately leading to bankruptcy. If elected, Mark Tracy will come into office with a deep knowledge of this issue, and with the goal of using that knowledge to build a stronger partnership between the State and our City.

Mark Tracy is an ideas candidate. I invite you to visit his website www.marktracy.com to review his proposals for partnerships that can expand our State services through the investment of private funds without taxpayer risk, and to support business development without sacrificing our tax base. Our State can benefit from new ideas to serve us effectively and efficiently.

The East Side’s delegation already is well-represented with progressive leaders, such as Edie Ajello, Gayle Goldin and Chris Blazejewski. If elected, Mark Tracy will provide a reliable vote to advance a progressive agenda. What makes Mark stand out to me is his potential to become a leader in the General Assembly on the economic and financial issues that are critical to the successful future of our City and our public schools. That is why I plan to vote for Mark Tracy for State Representative in the Democratic primary on September 12 and encourage you to join me.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

sam signature

July 29 Ward Letter

I hope you are enjoying your summer.  In my final letter before the August recess, I will discuss a school bond referendum and a renewed effort to bring “good government” reform for the City Council.

Download a pdf copy.

At its final meeting before the recess, the City Council will vote on whether to place a question on the November ballot seeking approval to issue $160 million in City bonds to fund school construction.  While it may appear on the surface to be an imposing commitment, the background facts concerning State aid for school construction make the proposal more attractive and affordable than it first may seem.

On paper, the State’s school construction aid program supports local projects based upon their ability to pay, and in the case of Providence, the formula calls for State aid to equal 83% of the project cost.  There are, however, several hurdles the State has imposed, partly to avoid excessive and/or improvident spending, but also to minimize the impact on the State budget.

The path to construction of a new, or substantially renovated school goes through six stages.  The City and the School Department develop a list of projects.  The City’s school architect submits plans and cost estimates to the State Department of Education to qualify the project for funding.  The City makes a commitment to pay the full cost of the project and asks the General Assembly to authorize reimbursement of the State’s “share.”  The General Assembly approves the project.  The City builds and pays for the project.  The State reimburses its share of the project once final construction is completed.

If you think this path is convoluted, I agree completely.  It would make more sense if the State did not require a second layer of approval from the General Assembly after the Department of Education has vetted and approved the project.  Also, it would make more sense for the State to pay its share of construction costs as they are incurred, rather than requiring the City to pay the entire cost “up front” and then seek reimbursement.  In my opinion, neither of these hurdles improves the quality or cost-effectiveness of a school project; instead, it strains the City’s bond rating and ultimately degrades the quality of the school facilities for our children.

With that said, there is the potential for improvement if we, as voters, approve the $250 million State bond for new school construction.  Some of this money will be available earlier in the construction/payment cycle, and the reimbursement rate will increase for certain projects that meet the State’s goals (newer buildings that consolidate smaller ones).

Given these constraints, it is advantageous for the City to place our children at the front of the line with the State by accelerating the first few stages of the process.  The $160 million bond vote is an example of this.  Although we voters are being asked to approve the entire commitment at once, the City plans, if voters approve, to issue bonds over a period of years, matching new issues with existing bonds as they are retired.  This probably will result in the issuance of school bonds in three installments of $50-$60 million each at 2-year intervals.  This would match the schedule of school bonds coming off the books during those years, thereby keeping the City’s level of borrowing and debt service for school projects essentially stable over that time.  (The City views other capital projects, such as streets, sidewalks and public buildings as a separate category, and the school bond issue will not affect ongoing municipal capital projects and plans.)

In short, while $160 million is a large number, it will be borrowed over a period of four or five years, and the bulk of the expense will be reimbursed by the State.  These reasons explain why I will be voting in favor of the bond at Monday night’s City Council meeting, and why I will encourage you to vote “Yes” if (as expected) the bond issue appears on the November ballot.

Last week, it was reported that former City Council President Aponte, while he was in office, directed the expenditure of $70,000 of City funds to GoLocal Prov without complying with the City’s procurement and competitive bidding rules, a transaction the Mayor stated “reeks of cronyism.”  This was the latest in a series of scandals this term involving former President Aponte and/or former Majority Leader Kevin Jackson, who after his felony indictment made history as the first Providence elected official to be recalled from office (by a margin of 91% to 9%).  These scandals produced an abundance of “teachable moments” demonstrating how the misdeeds of the City Council’s top leadership can drag down not only the entire body, but also the City as it appeals to businesses to locate here and to the State to support us.  These scandals demonstrate that the City Council’s leadership will not voluntarily step aside for the good of the City, and that their political allies are reluctant to take measures that will hurt their friends and/or damage their own political standing.  As a result, the City Council ultimately dealt with these issues only after a public outcry, sustaining damage from its tardy and (at least initially) inadequate response.

With that in mind, I have introduced a new version of an ordinance I first introduced after Councilman Jackson’s indictment and brought up again after Councilman Aponte’s indictment, stubborn resistance, and ultimate capitulation to overwhelming opprobrium.  On both occasions, the proposed ordinance was rejected on the theory that the problem would not happen again anytime soon, and that the City Council could address the problem in “real time” in the unlikely event of a reoccurrence.   I remain convinced it is easier to establish a rule in advance that City Council members indicted of felony crimes should yield their leadership and committee positions at least on a temporary basis until their record is cleared, and that a clear rule will help restore public confidence.  While an individual is entitled to the presumption of innocence in a court of law when indicted, these leadership positions are privileges the City Council confers on members for the good of the body, and the cloud that sits over indicted Council members harms the entire Council in the court of public opinion as long as the indicted members stay in top leadership positions.  For the good of the body, it would be better to place other capable Council members in those positions unless and until the cloud of indictment is lifted.  The current proposal would not take effect until January 1, 2019, so I am hoping it will make it easier for the Council to embrace a long-term solution to this serious problem.  The measure is scheduled to be heard in the Claims Committee on Wednesday night at 5:00 p.m.

Sincerely,

sam signature

July 22 Ward Letter

As the City Council heads towards its August recess, this week’s letter discusses a different approach to student housing regulation and the proposed Hope Point Tower.

Download a pdf copy.

As described in my July 1 letter, the City Council’s Ordinance Committee voted to continue an ordinance that would have limited to 3 the number of students who can live in each unit of a 2-family home located in an R-1 zone.  At tomorrow’s City Council meeting, my colleague Councilman Yurdin will introduce an ordinance of 4 undergraduate students to any housing unit in the City, regardless of zone.  The measure would not regulate graduate students, and would permit up to four undergraduate students in each unit of a multifamily house.  The proposed ordinance is similar to others in Boston and Somerville, Massachusetts.  It ultimately will be referred to the City Plan Commission, which last month decided to review the student housing issue in a broader context.

Last Wednesday night, the City Council’s Ordinance Committee held a public hearing on the petition to change the zoning on the I-195 land to permit the construction of the Hope Point Tower, a proposed 46-story luxury condominium complex.  Over a hundred people attended the meeting, and dozens of witnesses testified both for and against the proposal.  I found the testimony to be largely substantive and informative.

The first witness was Robert Azar, Deputy Director of the Planning Department.  He noted that the City’s zoning map is based upon the Comprehensive Plan, a document that was most recently approved three years ago after several years of public engagement.  The Comprehensive Plan calls for relatively low heights near the river, which gradually increase in the direction of downtown in order to maximize the advantages of river views.  For this reason and others, the City Plan Commission found that the proposed zoning change was not consistent with the Comprehensive Plan, and therefore should not be approved unless and until the Comprehensive Plan is modified.

A number of representatives of the building trades spoke in favor of the proposal, noting how the construction of the project would provide their members with 2-3 years of employment, which could materially advance their careers and their family’s opportunity to gain the benefits of the American Dream.  Other proponents noted the opportunity to make a bold architectural statement to help place the City of Providence on the national or international map.  Another proponent noted that the project could generate $4 million in annual tax revenue to the City, which sounded low given that others stated it would generate $250-$300 million in investment.  (At the commercial tax rate of $36.50, a $250 million project should generate more than $9 million in tax revenue.)  Some of the disparity might be explained by the developer’s stated plan to obtain a 20-year tax stabilization agreement, which would mean taxing at the “vacant land” value for 3 years, and adding in the marginal value of the building in 6% increments over the following 17 years.

There was testimony from residents who wished to protect a planned park whose size and access would be reduced by the proposal, as well as a letter from another developer who stated his reliance on the comprehensive plan prior to investing $200 million in the South Street Landing project nearby.  A well-known real estate appraiser (Peter Scotti) questioned the project’s viability in terms of matching the acquisition and construction costs with the projected market value of the condominiums that would become available.  Neither the project’s developer nor any representative testified at the hearing.

The Ordinance Committee took a series of different votes, ultimately agreeing to forward the proposal to the City Council with the Committee’s recommendation against approval.  The proposal will now go to the City Council for a vote at a future meeting.

Given the Ordinance Committee’s vote, it is now my responsibility as a City Council member to develop a position on the project.  In addition to reviewing the record before the Ordinance Committee, I have the benefit of dozens of messages and emails from you, my constituents and other City residents.  Thank you all for sharing your thoughtful comments.

As part of my research, I asked the Law Department whether the City Council could impose on the zoning change a requirement that the developer pay full taxes from the beginning, rather than obtaining a tax stabilization agreement.  (Because the parcel in question is on the I-195 land, the developer is otherwise automatically eligible for this incentive.)  I learned the City Council does not have this authority.  I noted that the developer could reduce tax revenues even further by converting units in the building to condominiums (which would pay the lower residential rate), while the common areas would retain the benefits of the tax stabilization agreement, and the developer could adjust the timing of the condominium conversion to tax fullest advantage of the low-tax early years of a tax stabilization.  I concluded the project’s benefit to the City’s finances would be greatly reduced for at least the first decade and possibly after that, depending upon market demand for the condominiums (which was questioned by Mr. Scotti.)   In short, this is not a project where the developer is offering to pay full taxes (such as for example was the case for 257 Thayer Street), but instead is looking for substantial tax benefits in addition to extraordinary relief from the zoning code and the comprehensive plan.

Putting all these considerations together, I have decided to vote against approval of the Hope Point Tower.  As some speakers noted, there are other downtown locations (such as across from the old Industrial National Bank Building, where a zoning change approving a 500-foot tall building several years ago for a project that did not go forward for other reasons) where this project would have a better chance of approval, but the location this developer chose is not compatible with the City’s overall development goals.

Sincerely,

sam signature