As the General Assembly heads into its final month of this session, this week’s letter will discuss proposals to invest in behavioral health treatment infrastructure, and provide additional information about the upcoming ballot question concerning whether the City should issue a pension obligation bond.
1. Behavioral Health Care Infrastructure
At its May 19 meeting, the Finance Committee heard public comment concerning Bill S-2894, which allocate $75 million in federal ARPA funds to establish a “revolving fund” to pay for physical infrastructure to house behavioral and mental health facilities. A number of representatives testified, presenting an inventory of requested projects that exceeded the requested $75 million. While all of these projects would have to be reviewed and vetted before approval, it also is probably true that if these funds are allocated, an open procurement process will generate many other proposals beyond the ones submitted by providers at the May 19 hearing.
As described in my November 14, 2021 letter, eligibility for ARPA funding depends on the purpose of the project and the feasibility of completing commitment of the funds by September 30, 2025 and spending the funds by December 31, 2026. Also, as described in my March 20 letter, because the ARPA funds are one-time funds, fiscal prudence calls for the projects they fund to be “one-time” expenditures that do not create trailing budgetary obligations that will continue after the ARPA funds are exhausted.
The bill’s proposal to spend $75 million on behavioral health care facilities checks all of the ARPA boxes. Since the pandemic created an additional need for behavioral and mental health care, the proposal “responds to” (in whole or at least in significant part) to the pandemic. The funds are for a single-time project (facilities construction), and can be, if efficiently managed, spent effectively within the 3-4 year ARPA timeline. The need for this expenditure is further validated by the Rhode Island Foundation’s Make It Happen Report, which proposed allocating $170 million in federal ARPA funds towards the construction of behavioral health care facilities (at pages 25-27), contending that this investment (as part of a $255 million package of related initiatives) would reduce (1) statewide emergency department visits for acute behavioral health care crises, (2) unintentional opioid overdoses and (3) suicides.
While the Rhode Island Foundation’s proposal would involve more than twice as great a commitment to facilities construction, I believe that the $75 million proposal could represent an acceptable alternative for two reasons.
First, Rhode Island has received (and will receive) funds to address the impacts of the opioid plague through legal settlements with manufacturers, which can provide additional funding for that piece of the behavioral health care puzzle. Second, the Rhode Island Foundation’s proposal was part of a $1.065 billion package which did not allocate any ARPA funds to address the pandemic itself, i.e. funding for testing, vaccines, personal protective equipment and so forth. In contrast, the Governor’s budget includes a $150 million allocation for this purpose. This not only represents the highest priority for Congress when it allocated the funds to the states, but also meets a serious ongoing need in Rhode Island. The Centers for Disease Control currently rates most of our Rhode Island as having a “high” risk of transmission, and we also currently have the highest case count per capita among the 50 states.
With the risk of more subvariants on the horizon, we must set aside substantial ARPA funds to help us respond to the virus before we consider other important, but long-term alternatives. For this reason, the $75 million proposal in S-2894 might be the best balance of competing concerns at this time.
2. The Pension Obligation Bond
Voters can now go to City Hall during business hours to cast their vote on Question #1, seeking voter approval to issue a $515 million pension obligation bond. I cast my ballot (voting to approve) this past Friday. You can find additional information about the proposal at the City’s special website, https://www.providenceri.gov/yeson1/. The page includes information about a virtual town hall that will take place this Thursday (May 26) at 5:30, as well as a live meeting on May 31 to provide voters with a forum to have their questions answered.
Many of you have sent me emails with your questions, which I have answered as best I can. Your questions often involve financial sophistication that reminds me how fortunate I am to represent such a well-informed constituency; however, some of the questions go beyond my ability to answer them. With that in mind, I have forwarded some of these questions to the City and encouraged them to post a “Frequently Asked Questions” tab on their web page so that all of us can benefit from the information that many of us have requested individually. The Secretary of State has included information on her web page concerning polling locations for the June 7 referendum, which you can access by clicking here.