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Don’t Forget the Real Scheme Regarding Smiley

Yesterday’s Providence Journal “Political Scene” reminded readers about the windfall that Brown University recently paid for a house owned by Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s chief of staff, Brett Smiley:

In July 2017, the university purchased a two-and-a-half story, federal-style Colonial house at 37 George St. — assessed by the city at $843,600 — from Gov. Gina Raimondo’s chief-of-staff Brett Smiley and his husband, James DeRentis.

The university paid them $1.1 million, according to city records.

As I detailed in July, the price that Brown paid for the house may not be the scandal (although it’s conspicuous that Brown has plenty of reasons to want to be on the good side of Raimondo’s upper echelon).  The property assessment is the oddity.  Smiley’s assessment, made while he worked in the administration of Democrat Mayor Jorge Elorza, was actually 6% below what he’d paid two years earlier, even though his neighborhood generally increased in value by 20% during that period, saving him something like $4,400 per year.

Don’t forget that Smiley ran for mayor as a progressive, which is very telling of progressive thinking.  They create a big-government funnel of money and power and then position themselves right at the tip.

This is just how it’s going to work until Rhode Islanders stop falling for the rhetoric and insist that government go back to working for us, not connected insiders who like to talk about supporting the oppressed.


The Appearance of a Crime Wave

Obviously, it’s still too early to assert correlation, but given how crazy I think parts of Providence’s “Community Safety Act” are, leading me to call it the “Gangland Security Act,” I wanted to note Dan McGowan’s WPRI coverage of a related controversy:

Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare said Thursday he sees “absolutely no correlation” between several recent shootings and the new police reform ordinance that took effect Jan. 1.

Pare was responding to a post on the Providence police union’s Facebook page that claimed violence “seems to have escalated” since the Providence Community-Police Relations Act (PCPRA) became law at the beginning of the year.

Unfortunately, it takes a while for data to accumulate sufficiently to assert a trend, but it’s worth keeping an eye on the possibility.  And of course, having a string of progressive mayors would seem likely to open several streams of causation for an increase in crime, so the Gangland Security Act may not necessarily be the greatest contributor.

I’ve made some changes in the way I gather my daily news, so that might account for this impression, but in general, it has seemed as if more crime stories have been coming out of Providence lately.  I’ve certainly started seeing posts here and there around the Internet with people asking if it’s safe to go into Rhode Island’s capital.  For now, they’ve seemed to be tongue in cheek, but impressions affect people’s behavior.

As the number of crime stories climbs and people begin talking about what seems to be an increase, with the police union chiming in with an explanation, actual data may come to matter less than the talk around the state.


Politically Correct Anti-Tobacco Regs: How Many People Might Die Because They Were Denied a Less Harmful Choice?

Better something that is less harmful than more harmful. But to some, innovative new products that reduce health risks – should be banned. In the tobacco and nicotine industry, the politically-correct anti-tobacco movement is advocating for the suppression of individual rights and elimination of less harmful choices, via restrictions and outright bans on products that could improve public health.


Letting the Private Sector Go Where It Needs to Go

Those of us here in the corner of Rhode Island that’s like a beachhead into Massachusetts are watching the south end of Fall River reverse its seemingly inevitable decline and revive.  A Herald News editorial spots a lesson:

If this rapid movement teaches us anything, it’s that the free market is stubborn. It goes where it wants to go, not where it is told to go.

For decades, Fall River has been trying to “revitalize” downtown. Results have been mixed, but we certainly haven’t seen the rapid movement downtown that we’re seeing in the South End, despite repeated promises from mayor after mayor and a snow drift of studies paid for by the taxpayer.

We’ve seen this in Tiverton, with the town’s would-be planners longing for an active downtown in the north end of town while blocking any kind of development elsewhere.  And we see it in the entire economic development philosophy of Rhode Island.  Rather than announcing that the state is changing its control-your-life ways and letting the economy flourish where there is opportunity, officials announce that there is taxpayer money on offer for anybody who is willing to play ball with insiders.

On the local level, one can understand (even while disagreeing) why folks who live in a relatively small town would work to preserve the scenery, even if their only benefit is driving by it from time to time.  Rhode Island goes well beyond that sort of preservation, however, to the point of insisting that only a future that meets with the central planners’ approval is worth having. The end result is more likely to be that they don’t get what they want (because it’s fantasy), while those who know how to game the system thrive.


Jobs That Appear When the Taxpayer Money Starts to Flow

Here’s a doozy of an example of government waste:

Workers in the East Side Access tunnel, which will connect Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan with the Long Island Rail Road. The project’s costs have ballooned to nearly $3.5 billion for each new mile of track. …

The budget showed that 900 workers were being paid to dig caverns for the platforms as part of a 3.5-mile tunnel connecting the historic station to the Long Island Rail Road. But the accountant could only identify about 700 jobs that needed to be done, according to three project supervisors. Officials could not find any reason for the other 200 people to be there.

Sadly, one suspects that this is just an extreme version of a typical activity, and that’s before one points out the reality of jobs that are happily claimed on the books, but that could easily be discarded, such as the proverbial three union workers on every project whose apparent job is to watch the one who’s actually doing something.


A Mysterious Trick of Government’s Population Management

Marc Monroe Dion articulates a truth of government, particularly municipal government:

“Oops!” Government says. “That money you gave us before? We spent that. Now, we need more money.”

“More money?” you say, talking around a mouthful of that macaroni and cheese that comes in the blue box. “I don’t have any more money.”

“Oh yeah?” Government says. “Well, we’re going to lay off all the cops AND all the firefighters, so when your house catches fire, there won’t be anyone to shoot the looters.”

Well, that scares the hell out of you, so you say maybe a little tax or fee increase would be fine, and the next thing you know you’re paying $1 for every rain drop that falls on your property, and you’re buying the macaroni and cheese knock-off that doesn’t even come in a blue box.

My one quibble is that, to my experience in Tiverton, the threats start with the schools.  Dion’s writing from Fall River, so that might be a Massachusetts vs. Rhode Island thing given differences in school funding.  Or maybe it’s a city vs. suburb thing.  Safety is less of a day-to-day issue for suburbanites, and suburban parents might be more conscious of comparisons between school districts and between public schools and private schools.

Quibbles and speculation aside, though, it is discouraging how quickly government can push people past questions about where all the money went and on to fears about what services might be eliminated.


The Problem with a PawSox Plan B

Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien is looking for any way to keep the PawSox in his city, to which end he has proposed a “plan B,” if the skeptically scrutinized original proposal doesn’t make it through the General Assembly:

Let Pawtucket get all the state income and sales taxes now generated at McCoy Stadium and let the city finance the entire public portion of the deal, Grebien said at a news conference in City Hall chambers. He told reporters he hadn’t yet shared that message Tuesday with House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello or Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, but he has talked with them on prior occasions about such an option.

Here’s the inescapable problem with any public financing deal:  Nobody believes that it won’t end up on the backs of statewide taxpayers if things go wrong.  Nobody believes that the General Assembly and governor will sit back and watch as Pawtucket whittles away education spending and tightens screws on labor unions because it can’t raise the money to pay for its end of the deal.

Call that cynicism, if you want, but it seems like a pretty straightforward application of the lessons of recent history.  The Rhode Island establishment’s progressive approach to government leaves no room for municipalities to really make their own beds.  If circumstances and policies lead them to thrive, the state will find ways to spread the wealth; if they choose poorly and falter, the state will step in.

The only acceptable barrier that remains, therefore, is between government and the private sector.  It isn’t a sure thing that politicians won’t step in to save some iconic private-sector brand that blows it, but at least taxpayers have a fighting chance to say, “no.”


Bag Ban Mania Has Come to Tiverton

The activists are going town by town pushing fruitless plastic bag bans, and in Tiverton the debate raises more disturbing beliefs:

Hilton apparently believes that government’s providing educational services creates an excellent opportunity to manipulate children into conflict with their parents to advance a cause whenever a handful of elected officials agree with activists that the cause is righteous. While one would have to research how much class time must be devoted to an issue in order to turn children into a government youth corps, Tiverton parents might rightly wonder whether the school district’s academic results illustrate available slack in the school day. Just 28% of Tiverton high school students are proficient in math and fewer than half in reading. Perhaps indoctrination can wait until those results improve.

On the other hand, perhaps the school department could seize on the issue to provide practical lessons in math, science, and critical thinking.

The town administrator is warning of big spending increases next year, and this is what elected officials are spending their time on?


Lesson: Never, Ever Buy or Lease Property in Providence

It’s almost difficult to believe that Patrick Anderson didn’t have a typo or something in his Providence Journal article on Lehigh Cement’s non-resolution over a tax problem with the City of Providence.  The city overcharged the company $500,000 over four years.  As any ordinary individual or entity might do when dealing with municipal government, Lehigh approached the tax assessor’s office and got the run-around for a while as the office changed hands.

Finally going to court, the company has been told it will not get its money back for two reasons that are outrageously contradictory.  First:

… a Superior Court judge ruled against Lehigh and, on appeal, the state high court agreed, writing that while talking with the city about compensation, Lehigh had allowed the statute of limitations to expire.

If you’re wondering, according to Anderson the statute of limitations is three months.  That abbreviated period gives especial bite to the second reason the business couldn’t get its money back.  Even if it had beat the statute of limitations:

The court agreed with Providence’s defense that Lehigh needed to challenge its bill through the city appeal system instead of going directly to court.

It seems to me that the same government official who should have urged the company to start the appeals process was the one dragging his heals while stealing a half-million dollars from the company.

Perhaps filing an appeal stops the clock on the statute of limitations, but just to be safe, Providence taxpayers should regularly review every bill in fine detail and, when there appears to be a problem, immediately file an appeal as well as a complaint with court.  Or better yet, just stay away from Providence altogether if at all possible.


The Mixed Up Economics of Government Economic Development

Not to overuse the word, but let’s just say that I’m cynical about the newly proclaimed interest in development around the proposed PawSox stadium in Pawtucket:

Pawtucket leaders Wednesday used the interest in developing Tidewater and inquiries from an unnamed hotel developer to build near a new stadium in support of their push for a state-backed financing deal for the proposed $83-million downtown ballpark.

But cynicism aside, Rhode Islanders should take Mayor Donald Grebien’s explanation of the economics as a warning sign about government officials’ understanding:

“The Ballpark at Slater Mill is the catalyst that Pawtucket, the Blackstone Valley and Rhode Island need to continue to move forward,” said Mayor Donald R. Grebien. “Pawtucket is a business-friendly city and investors and developers are already expressing support for the ballpark project. However, the private sector cannot wait forever. They will look elsewhere to invest. That is why it is so critical that the General Assembly act prudently and expeditiously to enact the enabling legislation and move our great state forward.”

Anybody who’s ever negotiated the price of a car should know that you never buy under time pressure.  In this case, Grebien’s attempt at pressure undermines his larger argument.

If the stadium really generates economic value then the private sector really will wait or come back.  On the other hand, if these two particular prospects (one anonymous) are critical to the venture, then taxpayers should take that as a warning.  After all, the whole deal relies on ancillary development to pay the debt.  If the “private sector” isn’t clamoring for spots, the deal is too risky.


Wheee! Warwick Fire Chief Puts Taxpayers On Hook for Cool $2.8 Million Fine

From the front page of yesterday’s Warwick Beacon.

[Taxpayer activist Rob] Cote claims that in the past four years the fire department has averaged about 1,400 shift changes a year, totaling about 5,600 Form 109s that are supposedly missing or have been purposefully disposed of. This could incur a maximum fine of $2.8 million, which the city would be on the hook for, according to Cote.

Cote filed an Access to Public Records Act request (APRA) in May and December of 2016 to get any documents pertaining to changes of shift within the Warwick Fire Department.

Fourteen hundred shift changes per year times four years requires 5,600 forms, each of which must be signed by four people in authority. What happened to those 5,600 forms? Where they destroyed? That is what Warwick Fire Chief James McLaughlin claims. Or did they never exist? If the latter, those 5,600 shift changes were never authorized and, therefore … what? The firefighters must pay back that money? (Asking honestly. Legal-types are encouraged to chime in on this point.)

Terrific work by Rob Cote, who worked for over a year rounding up all of this information and (lack of) documents to expose what is a scam, one way or the other — and could well turn out to be a costly one to taxpayers.

One other item from the article. This is called foreshadowing. (Emphasis added).

In response to allegations from Cote that fire department personnel had used the change of shift system to subvert using vacation or sick time in order to go work other jobs or even attend a softball tournament in Maine, McLaughlin said that he had seen no evidence of such activity, and if anybody has proof of such accusations to please bring it forward.

As they teach first year law students, never ask a question you don’t know the answer to … and government officials should never ask for proof of shenanigans unless they are 100% certain it does not exist.


The Fruitlessness of Plastic Bag Bans

As we hear rumors that the municipal fad of plastic bag bans may move up to the state level, Glenn Reynolds points toDaily Mail article reporting that up to 95% of all plastic waste in the world’s oceans comes from eight rivers in Asia and two in Africa:

Up to 95 per cent of plastic polluting the world’s oceans pours in from just ten rivers, according to new research.

The top 10 rivers – eight of which are in Asia – accounted for so much plastic because of the mismanagement of waste.

About five trillion pounds is floating in the sea, and targeting the major sources – such as the Yangtze and the Ganges – could almost halve it, scientists claim.

When your neighbors attempt to impose these sorts of environmentalist restrictions on you, what they’re really doing is imposing useless drags on our lives and economy in order to feel good about themselves.  Naturally, the most vulnerable in our community will ultimately feel the effects most acutely, but that’s of little concern when you’re saving the world from a phantom non-Asian bag menace.

That statement may seem a little harsh, but in all the articles I’ve read about these bans, I don’t think I’ve ever seen mention of the actual source of plastic in the oceans or a discussion of the economics.  I have, however, seen stories about people getting sick from reusable grocery bags.