In 2010 the Rhode Island Senate Committee on Government Oversight issued a report on state mandates. For 25 pages, the committee discusses a series of requirements placed on cities and towns that come with no funding mechanisms: unfunded mandates. From bus monitors to now dam repair, these edicts are passed down from the state and the legislature to be incurred by municipal budgets.
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. These mandates are those intentions.
Fixing old dams, investing in infrastructure and protecting property in the process is a noble enough mission, and protecting the environment is what we charge DEM to do, but with cities and towns, and the state, continuing to struggle financially, there needs to be a balance between what we want and what we can afford.
In a worst-case scenario, repairs to high-risk dams in Johnston – a label that has more to do with what surrounds it than current condition – could cost the town upwards of $4 million. Johnston is growing, but it’s still a small town with a comparatively small budget. When you’re talking about Johnston or Lincoln, two of the areas affected by this mandate, $4 million is a lot of money. There is no indication that these dams are on their way out, and with so many other areas in dire need of funds (like roads, for starters), it should be up to the town to prioritize.
The state Department of Environmental Management serves an important purpose. As we celebrated Earth Day on Monday, we are reminded of how crucial it is that we protect our natural resources. That being said, DEM’s purpose is not to tell municipalities how to allocate their already strained resources. We elect town officials to create a budget that prioritizes our tax dollars. We trust them to fund our schools, provide public safety and, yes, protect our resources, but they must do so within our means as a town and with as little impact to the taxpayer as possible. Now is not the time to raise taxes, and any unfunded mandate that threatens to cause such a reaction is one that needs to be reconsidered. Let the town live and die by its own decisions.
Whether it’s through gambling revenues or some other source, the state needs to put its money where its mouth is.