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A Telling Juxtaposition of Priorities in Newport

Let’s stipulate that public safety is paramount and that lives and bodily injury beat road repair on the priority list every time.  That said, Newport Mayor Harry Winthrop could have picked any government activity to highlight in this exclamation, made in the context of a conversation about school shootings:

“Our number one priority is public safety,” Mayor Harry Winthrop said. “Who gives a damn about a pothole on Bellevue Avenue if we are not safe?”

He didn’t go with his government’s charitable grants, beautification projects, open space, community planning or any of the countless other things that municipal government does that ought to come after both public safety and maintenance of infrastructure.  That tells us a lot about the priorities of our government officials, and we see it in our roads.

Which, by the way, don’t take long to become public safety matters themselves.  When one drives around the state and sees bridges with regularly decreasing weight limits or propped up on wooden blocks and has to swerve onto the shoulder or into another lane to avoid potholes, the specter of harm and even death isn’t difficult to sense.

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Efficiency at Ticketing May Disrupt Natural Balance

If you’re wondering why legislators are now and then suddenly very concerned about catching people who speed, run red lights (just barely), or drive without insurance, Dan McGowan and Susan Campbell of WPRI give a hint as to the origin of their urgency:

Conduent earns $2,978 per month for each camera [in Providence] and $7.50 per [speeding] violation processed, meaning it was set up to make more than $100,000 during the first month of the program. The Maryland company, a subsidiary of a New Jersey-based corporation that was formerly a division of Xerox, also receives a $3.50 convenience fee every time a violator uses their credit card to pay a ticket.

Hey, keeping us all in line is always profitable for somebody.  In this case, it’s also proving wildly profitable for the city:

A total of 12,193 tickets were generated from five speed cameras between Jan. 16 and Feb 22, with nearly all of the tickets coming from three locations: Mount Pleasant Avenue, Charles Street and Thurbers Avenue. (The cameras are not in use on Sundays.)

At $95 per ticket, that means violators were charged $1.15 million in just over one month. The city had already received $370,000 as of Feb. 22, records show. Six additional cameras will be deployed in various neighborhoods next week.

Of course, while that’s 12,193 reminders to slow down, it’s also 12,193 reasons to think twice before driving through Providence at all.

Sometimes inefficiencies create a natural balance.  In its efficiency at charging people for driving violations, Providence may be preparing to teach us something about the costs of disturbing that balance when it comes to driving 11 miles per hour over the speed limit.

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A Local Talking Point That Won’t Go Away

Once again, the School Committee in Tiverton is trying to distract from its approximate $1 million annual surplus by seeking credit for spending the money on capital expenses.  Unfortunately, it has done so in a way that has actually cost the town hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Meanwhile:

The draft audit that the Town Treasurer has been preparing to release seems to indicate that no such account existed even by the end of last June. Yet, this year, Tiverton taxpayers will have to come up with $1,342,613 to pay principal and interest on debt the town had to accept in order to repair the high school and middle school. The school department could almost pay the entire debt payment with just its annual surplus — that is, it could take the debt payment off the back of the town with just the money that the School Committee decides not to spend each year.

Something’s not adding up.

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Needed After Portsmouth: A Clear Picture, Not a Narrative

I didn’t plan to take up the former student’s assault of a Portsmouth High School teacher again, but something missing from the Providence Journal coverage of the released police report really should be part of the public discussion.  Specifically, reporter Katie Mulvaney leaves out the following, from the report (which I saw in full earlier but now can’t find):

[The suspect] was banging on the doors and she opened the door to redirect him to the main office.

We still don’t have sufficient details to offer a fair opinion of blame.  If the teacher recognized the former student, for example, it might be difficult to fault her for letting her guard down.

That said, what we know from the police report is that the teacher made it possible for her assailant to enter the building, and the school resource officer trailed behind the incident until it was over.  Those are very important details to keep in mind as people proclaim their opinions on what should be done following this incident.

Adding new personnel and security measures would come at a cost, not only in the money that might go to more useful purposes, but also in the environment under which students live, affecting their sense of community and expectations of the world.  Meanwhile, no security system will be immune to human error.

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The Unhealthy Restrictions of Being the 3rd Worst State for Zoning

When it comes to national rankings, those that show Rhode Island badly on the wrong side abound.  Ted Nesi highlights another one, on WPRI:

Rhode Island has some of the most restrictive regulations for land development in the country, which is likely raising the cost of housing in the state, according to a recent study.

The study by Vanessa Brown Calder, a researcher at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute think tank, ranked Rhode Island as the 3rd most restrictive state for zoning regulation and the 8th most restrictive for land-use regulation.

“These constraints on land development within cities and suburbs aim to achieve various safety, environmental, and aesthetic goals,” Calder wrote. “But the regulations have also tended to reduce the supply of housing, including multifamily and low-income housing. With reduced supply, many U.S. cities suffer from housing affordability problems.”

Progressives tend to look at housing affordability as a welfare issue, because they generally like the idea that government can tell people what they can, can’t, and must do with their property.  The solution, for them, is to use government’s power to take people’s money in order to transfer it to those whom them zoning regulations lock out of housing.  Naturally, this has the advantage of requiring everybody to go to government for benefits and permissions, as well as creating that money-power funnel I mentioned yesterday.

But immobilizing people in this way is not healthy, whether by making it difficult for them to find new homes or layering government forms on them whenever they do move.  Beyond simply the principle of freedom is its practical value.  Allowing people to move from place to place and adapt their homes (whether by price or by function) creates opportunities for them that benefit society as a whole, especially when it comes to the economy.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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