Last month, I mentioned a complaint by Providence City Councilman Sam Zurier that the city government had finished the year, not with some of its cumulative deficit paid off as planned, but with an even bigger gap. A chart about midway down this Dan McGowan article on WPRI shows what Zurier meant. McGowan frames the story mainly in terms of mayoral politics:
Their game of finger-pointing had largely played out behind the scenes until this past weekend, when Elorza’s office claimed Taveras’s final budget “relied on a number of one-time fixes that were unrealistic and did not come to bear,” and Taveras fired back that the new administration “should focus on the choices it has made since taking office” to figure out why the city ran a $5-million deficit last year.
“Running a city like Providence is difficult,” Taveras told WPRI.com. “The choices an administration makes on a daily basis certainly have a significant and immediate impact on city finances and our future.”
Frankly, I’m still not sure what there was in the backgrounds of any of the last three mayors that would lead people to expect them to be able to run a city the size of Providence. It’s as if voters believe that a mixture of bureaucracy and politics will ensure that a city runs well, leaving them free to vote for mayors based on irrelevant social policies or identity group affiliation.
Ted Nesi tweeted McGowan’s chart with the warning that the city has “zero room for error.” A recession (or any number of possible calamities or probable economic shifts) will simply overwhelm the city budget.
Providence isn’t alone in this problem. Our nation has been running on debt for three-quarters of a century, and for at least the past decade, any recovery Rhode Island has experienced has basically been built on dubious assumptions about the future, from pensions to the economy to government wisdom. We make it from year to year just barely pushing the reckoning off into the future.
This won’t last. Perhaps next year, perhaps next decade, we’ll all be wondering how we missed the signs. The only relevant question, though, will be whether the pain and the promise of more will be enough — will be obvious enough — that the need to resolve our philosophical inconsistencies and political superficiality will overwhelm the urge for narrow self preservation.