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Assessing the Problems and the Solutions of the Town

The particulars will vary from town to town — depending on the makeup of the population, the availability of non-tax revenue, the personalities involved in local politics, and so on — but key principles are essential for government to operate.  In a representative democracy with frequent turnover of elected officials, the rules have to be clear and consistent (and the power limited), such that the electorate is voting on broad questions of direction, not to address immediate crises or controversies.

As vice president of the Tiverton Town Council, I’ve been giving these matters a great deal of thought, and it has ultimately come down to this assessment of problems and solutions:

  1. Tiverton has no long-term financial plan.  Beginning at the council level and with input and cooperation across town government — municipal and schools — we must put every known challenge on the table and piece them all together so we can make rational decisions going forward.  Everything is a trade-off with something else, and without a real and concrete understanding of what needs to be done by when, town government cannot make informed decisions.
  2. The roles of town officials are not clearly defined (at least in how they are executed).  Much of our difficulty maintaining employees in critical positions as well as our political acrimony comes from the same source.  Whether we’re talking micromanagement from the Town Council, decisions by employees that follow improper channels, or boards that claim power for themselves (or neglect it), lacking a clear picture of who is responsible for what can result in conflicts and wasted effort.
  3. Basic and consistent rules of operation haven’t been followed.  A clear message from local businesses when Town Council members, town officials, and various volunteers toured their facilities a couple months ago was that the rules they have to follow change depending whom they ask or who holds a particular office at the time.  Meanwhile, every time employees have done something so egregious as to deserve to lose their jobs, lawyers advising the town have pointed out that no prior violations were ever actually put in their files. At the same time, the Board of Canvassers has picked and chosen what it would put on ballots.  These examples all illustrate the importance of consistency.

Some of these challenges will sound familiar across Rhode Island, but talking to people involved in politics in some other towns, I’ve been struck by just how out-of-whack Tiverton is on some of them.  That is particularly true when it comes to the lack of a financial plan.

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The Mystery of Deteriorating Roads

As is true around the state, the condition of the roads are a constant (and justified) complaint in Tiverton, with a particular focus on those that the state owns and, therefore, is responsible to fix.  Oh, they’re on the 10-year plan for repair, but that means at least five more years — five more winters and five more thaws — until the worst of them are addressed.

A local landscaper asks a question that occurs to many Rhode Islanders, in one form or another:

Louis Dupont, said the state “better do something.”

“The state gets all this money from the lottery. Where does it go?” Dupont asked. “That baffles me. All that money. Where does it go?”

Asked his opinion of the eastern stretch of East Road, Dupont says: “The tractor almost jumps off the trailer.”

The state now has a $10 billion budget, and the municipalities collect another $2.5 billion in taxes on top of that.  Where does all the money go?

Well, this is the Know a Guy State, and budgets fund special favors, handouts, pet projects, and a substantial pay premium for government employees.  Once a chunk of cash is claimed for anything or anyone, it becomes an entitlement that is extremely difficult to take away.  When money does go toward infrastructure, cost-growing mandates from the state, such as prevailing wage, drive up the expense to ridiculous heights so taxpayer dollars can’t go as far as they otherwise would.

Big-government politicians everywhere understand that they’re better off siphoning money to things that shouldn’t be priorities so that the public will consent to higher taxes and more fees in order to fund the things that they really care about, and Rhode Island has made that principle a way of life.  Until we stop shaking our heads and writing it off simply as the way things are around here, the practice will continue.

But imagine if we insisted on change and our roads were rapidly repaired, perhaps even while we experienced a reduction in taxation.  Decline has been a choice, and it is within our power to reverse it and rocket up the national rankings that give Ocean State residents a near-monthly slap.

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MA and Fall River Should Help with Their Drug Dealers’ Disruptions

The only recreation marijuana store in Fall River is experiencing booming business, and it’s disrupting the neighborhood, not to mention one of the major traffic areas into Tiverton:

“We totally understand their frustration as far as last week because it was mayhem,” said Kyle Bishop, the dispensary’s chief operating officer. “The Fourth of July was insane.”

Bishop estimated that business at the dispensary was up 30% over the holiday weekend and that as many as 1,800 customer transactions were taking place daily.

To help remedy the problem, Northeast Alternatives is considering making some changes. Bishop said the business will request an increased police presence to help direct traffic at the intersection of William S. Canning Boulevard and Commonwealth Avenue, to which the dispensary’s parking lot is connected. Police will also create a new traffic lane at the intersection using traffic cones on weekends, Bishop said.

The dispensary will also post signs discouraging customers from parking on the nearby residential streets of Commonwealth Avenue and Heritage Court and have private security patrols of the neighborhood.

That’s all well and good, but a piece of the puzzle is missing.  The Commonwealth of Massachusetts collects a 10.75% excise tax on top of the 6.25% sales tax on marijuana, and the city is allowed to pile on another 3%, for a total of 20% of every sale.  If there’s any legitimate use of all that extra money, it’s dealing with the challenges that the state’s entry into recreational drugs might create.

In short, modifying that stretch of road to accommodate the cash cow should be a top priority.

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Larry Fitzmorris: All Down Side, No Benefit to Portsmouth Unifying High School with Newport

In a stunning decision, the Portsmouth Town Council voted 7-0 on June 24 to enter into discussions with Newport for joining the two high schools into a unified system. The proposal by Newport School Superintendent Colleen Burns Jermain had been rejected by the Middletown Council.

We have been down this road before. This decision reverses a May 2011 unanimous vote by the Portsmouth School Committee to end discussions on regionalizing all three of the Island’s districts and reject any regional approach.

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Rhode Island’s Politicians Are Failing

For too long, the political class has failed the people of our state. At $888 per year for each of Rhode Island’s one million residents, a family of four is paying over $3,500 annually for excessive compensation deals for government workers, while the basic needs of their own families are being ignored by politicians.

With almost two-thirds of these excessive costs being heaped upon municipal taxpayers, our recent Public Union Excesses report further estimates that property taxes could be reduced by 25% if more reasonable, market-based collective bargaining agreements were negotiated.

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Discussing the State’s Effect on Municipalities on State of the State

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s new board member, Judge Robert Flanders, recently accompanies me for an appearance on the State of the State show to discuss the effect that state-level rulings and legislation can have on cities’ and towns’ ability to manage themselves and their budgets.

6-10-19 Impact of Legislation/Court Decisions on Municipal Management and Cost from John Carlevale on Vimeo.

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Another Complaint Against Tiverton Council Dismissed

The Facebook spin after the Ethics Commission complaints against three Tiverton Town Council members (including me) were dismissed without investigation was that we only got away with it because we have friends on the commission.  (If you’ve watched state-level politics for a while, you may need to pause for a moment to finish laughing about that allegation before reading on.)

It will be interesting to see whether the same spin is tried against the Attorney General now that his office has joined the conspiracy:

On January 17, three members of the Tiverton Town Council – Patricia Hilton, Denise DeMedeiros, and Joseph Perry – filed an Open Meetings Act (OMA) complaint with the Rhode Island Attorney General against the other four councilors: Robert Coulter, Donna Cook, Nancy Driggs, and me, all of us members of the Tiverton Taxpayers Association (TTA). The complaint included three separate accusations, and after five months, more than $1,500 in expenses to the town, and many hours of lost time, all three counts have been dismissed. As the Attorney General’s ruling states, “we find that the Town Council did not violate the OMA.”

As I note at the second link above, this is all part of an ongoing effort to keep a disruptive Gotcha game going to color public perception.  If the people of Tiverton follow the example of the Ethics Commission and the Attorney General, review the facts, and talk to us, they’ll probably join the conspiracy, too.

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The Many Ways to Shuffle Around Money and Influence

Dan McGowan’s recent Boston Globe article about Democrat Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s curious fundraising relationship with a local nonprofit is a excellent representation of the way things increasingly work in politics:

Because there is no state law prohibiting politicians from raising money for nonprofits, the operation appears to be legal. But it has created a “back door way” for companies to “ingratiate themselves with public officials,” said John Marion, the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, a good-government advocacy group. …

Elorza, who was first elected in 2014 and won another four-year term last year, has raised more than $500,000 for the tourism fund, using a portion of the money to travel to places including China and New Orleans.

That’s not all.  In keeping with the practices of Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo, the nonprofit is also part of a larger job network for Elorza’s political allies.  When he makes calls to solicit money for the nonprofit, Elorza goes to Campaign Finance Officers, “the consulting firm that has overseen his political fund-raising operation for five years.”  Those dots connect much more closely:

When Elorza took office, he installed three of his supporters as the sole members of the fund’s board of directors.

One of those three is Meg Clurman, who is a partner at the aforementioned Campaign Finance Officers.  One of the organization’s employees is Andrew Moore, who is also Elorza’s campaign finance director and has been paid by the Providence Tourism Fund in the past.

An important lesson from this revelation is that the very idea of campaign finance reform is wrongheaded.  Once a politician hits a certain level of money and power, the opportunities to find workarounds are too extensive.  Giving him travel money, helping to keep his allies employed, and even providing him money to spend on feel-good things through a nonprofit are all tangible benefits that donors are providing to the mayor.

Thus, laws that target more straightforward transactions disproportionately trip up only those who are trying to build momentum in order to make provide accountability through competition at the ballot box, which is where corruption ultimately has to be called to account.

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Picking the Monopoly Among Government Schools

Linda Borg reports in the Providence Journal that the Chariho regional school district has been permitted to continue in its suit against the State of Rhode Island for allowing additional career and technical centers in the region, allegedly in breach of their agreement:

… Chariho filed suit in Superior Court alleging that the education department had breached its contract by approving similar vocational programs at Westerly and Narragansett High Schools. Chariho also sought a permanent injunction to prohibit the state from authorizing other career and tech centers in the region.

Chariho has long complained that Wagner’s efforts to expand school choice have hurt preexisting vocational programs. Wagner, in an effort to promote Gov. Gina Raimondo’s support for career and technical education, has encouraged traditional high schools to open their own career and tech programs.

The outcome of the lawsuit is probably going to hinge on whether a program opened at an existing high school counts as a “center.”  Chariho cares, as Superintendent Barri Ricci makes clear in the article, because the district must pay another district if students within its boundaries choose to cross those boundaries for a particular program.  Though more difficult to track,  the district also loses revenue to the extent students from other districts decide to stay within their own boundaries for similar programs.

Contract provisions aside, the case illustrates a broader point about government services.  Chariho is claiming a contractual right to a monopoly on career and technical training within the public school system in that area.  If families want to pay extra to send children to private academies, the district has little say.  It is only because we’ve set up this system of schools for which we insist students’ families can’t be expected to pay that this is an issue.

Most within-government school choice — notably charter schools — takes the form of the public sector competing with the private sector.  Taxpayers are simply forced to pay for the education services for which families would otherwise have had to pay, giving government schools a massive advantage in attracting customers.

When the competition is between government schools, however, choices become subject to the political process.  The state government gets to decide what choices families have and what government agencies get the monopoly advantages.

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Help Spread the Word About the Cost of Government Unions

Wow, has our report shaken up the status quo! We have done the research, and we have connected the dots. The number one driver of the Ocean State’s declining population and jobs numbers – the high property taxes we all pay – can now be directly connected to the excessive costs of government, as mandated by government union collective bargaining agreements.

Now, we are asking your support to help us spread the word.

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Rhode Island’s Political Leaders Are Failing on Their Promise to Help Average Families

At $888 per year for each of Rhode Island’s 1 million residents, a family of four is paying over $3,500 annually for excessive compensation deals for government workers, while the basic needs of their own families are being ignored by politicians.

With almost two-thirds of these excessive costs being heaped upon municipal taxpayers, the report further estimates that property taxes could be reduced by 25% if more reasonable, market-based collective bargaining agreements were negotiated.

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Solving Government’s Bad Attitude About Lunch Bills by Replacing Parents with Government

It appears that another embarrassing Rhode Island story has captured the imagination of the nation: Lunch shaming, or giving students a minimal meal when their parents have built up a tab for school lunches.  Locally, the topic has been around for quite a while; it was a topic in one of my podcasts from April 2017.

In a nutshell, my take was to suggest that we’ve lost our way if we’re having public policy debates about how school districts should deal with parents who are deadbeats when it comes to lunch money.  I mean, can you imagine a private school shaming their customers’ children over a $5 lunch tab?  The whole attitude is different, even to the point of seeing students and their families as customers rather than something more like wards or even burdens.

The expansion of that attitude rears its head in a policy proposal that is making its way through Rhode Island’s brain trust:

[Elizabeth Burke Bryant of RI Kids Count] is advocating for the approval of a community eligibility provision which would provide free and reduced lunches to all students and avoid singling out children based on their family’s finances.

The community eligibility provision, which is part of Governor Gina Raimondo’s proposed budget, would provide free meals for all students within districts that have a large percentage of low-income families.

The unhealthy perspective engendered by big government has had the unhappy consequence of shaming children.  The solution, we’re told, is to expand government further into the role of parents, thus expanding the reach of the big-government attitude.  This will have consequences for Rhode Island families that can be as disastrous, in aggregate, as they are unmeasurable.

Providing for your children is part of what makes parenthood worthwhile.  Packing a lunch with love is one of the most straightforward and basic expressions of that responsibility.

Go away, big government.  Let us be families.

The dynamic is reminiscent of the argument that government schools have to instruct all children according to the state’s beliefs about sex because some minority of parents will do a poor job educating their own children.  In the case of school lunches, statists don’t want to single out children who need help funding lunch, so they’re going to edge in on the relationship of most parents and their children.

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How Much Union Members Are Paid, And How Much Taxpayers Can Afford

With the third highest property taxes in the country, a major encumbrance within an overall anti-taxpayer and anti-business climate that has dropped Rhode Island into bottom-10 rankings in a number of critical national indexes, the excessive costs of collectively bargained government services can be directly linked to this statewide problem.

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Who Is Working For You? New Major Report Coming Soon From The Center

Who does the Rhode Island General Assembly really work for? Too often, the people of our state are left voiceless as special interest dominate the conversation. Recently, the Ocean State Current broke a major story that ignited media coverage across the state. In H5662 and Whom Rhode Island Representatives Represent, Research Director Justin Katz, uncovers a key admission from the political class.

During the March 11th Tiverton Town Council meeting, a member of the General Assembly admitted that he put forward the bill at the request of Speaker of the House, without regard to the cost to the town he represents for the state firefighters union.

Don’t wait, you can catch the video on the Current by clicking the link here. You can also find the followup here.

In the coming weeks, the Center will be releasing a major report on the cost of collective bargaining in the Ocean State. This will be the longest and most in-depth research project the Center has ever undertaken on any topic. We invite you to be on the lookout for this critical report.

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The Pressure the General Assembly Is Trying to Control

The Providence Journal today has published an op-ed in which I address the admission of Representative John “Jay” Edwards (D, Portsmouth, Tiverton) that he put in legislation for the state firefighters union, by way of Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, without much consideration of its effect on the people he’s supposed to represent:

Watch Rhode Island politics for even a short time, and you’ll catch on to certain truths. Everybody seems to know them, and sometimes an op-ed or talk radio show will blurt them out. By now, in 2019, these truths have been sufficiently longstanding and have produced so many of their inevitable consequences that Rhode Islanders feel them in their bones. They are why few run for office and why many leave the state, year after year.

Still, a person who’s watched Rhode Island politics can’t help but be surprised when an insider, who ought to have the good taste to pretend these truths aren’t true, admits one of them. I had this experience at the March 11 meeting of the Tiverton Town Council, of which I am the vice president. We were engaged in a ritual conversation with our town’s representatives and senators, and I asked state Rep. John “Jay” Edwards about one of his bills.

One important lesson shouldn’t be lost as this matter predictably falls along lines of unions versus taxpayers.  With legislation like the bills Mattiello asked Edwards to submit, legislators aren’t only elevating the interests of the unions over those of the broader public.  They’re also advancing the statewide unions’ interests over those of the union locals and their workers.

That’s ultimately the upshot of having the General Assembly put limits on what the sides can negotiate in any particular city or town.  Inherently, both sides of the negotiating table are restricted in what they’re able to negotiate.

The pressure on budgets doesn’t go away.  Elected officials and municipal employees simply have to find other ways to release it.  Perhaps Mattiello and Edwards expect or hope that the “release” will come in the form of big tax increases in an already over-taxed state.  More likely, the result will be exacerbated under-funding of pensions, infrastructure, and other areas of the budget that aren’t as straightforward.

If the budget pressure can’t be released in those ways, the bubble will only grow, to the point that we’re talking about privatization and regionalization.  Maybe those are good ideas and maybe they’re not, but the only way to truly know is to let the people closest to negotiations talk about and try everything.

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