A peculiar anatomy of blame, Providence on the brink
With compounded cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) pushing Providence toward bankruptcy, it's time to ask how to save our capital city, how we got into this mess, and who's responsible.
Rep. David Cicilline's recent apology ("Cicilline acknowledges he misspoke," by John E. Mulligan, April 11, 2012: A-01) prompted a hail of hostile comments. I agree with critics that Cicilline should have warned in 2010 about fiscal problems in Providence. I am glad he now acknowledges that he should have more clearly and more vehemently warned about the pending crisis.
The genesis of this crisis was 23 years ago, on Dec. 6, 1989. The Providence Retirement Board took a series of votes that multiplied pension costs beyond both inflation and the city's ability to pay. One item promised 5 percent and 6 percent COLAs – compounded annually – for retired police and firefighters. As the Providence Journal accurately reported ("They just broke the city," by Tom Mooney, June 5, 2011: A-01), a union majority on the board created pension obligations that have driven taxes through the roof and drained funds from essential city services.
Mayor Joseph Paolino fought the Retirement Board's actions to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, but Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci signed a consent decree on Dec. 18, 1991 that legitimized those compounding COLAs. Ever since then, payments to retired police and firefighters have doubled every 14 years.
Mayor Cicilline had no role in creating these unsustainable pension obligations.
I first met David Cicilline in 1994 when he ran for our state's House of Representatives. I was director of Common Cause Rhode Island (1988-2006). He was eager to sponsor legislation that strengthened ethics and launched the decade-long battle for separation of powers. Unlike many of his peers, Rep. Cicilline never seemed afraid of House Speaker John Harwood, who often punished reform-minded lawmakers and publicly attacked those he called "nay-sayers and would-be reformers."
Rep. Cicilline helped rally other representatives – both Democrats and Republicans – to support constitutional proposals that Harwood thwarted in 2001 and 2002 but which finally won General Assembly passage in 2003. More than 78 percent of state voters approved the Separation of Powers Amendments that ended 340 years of unchecked legislative supremacy.
I stood in awe when David Cicilline dared to run against Buddy Cianci early in 2002. Months later, a jury found that Cianci and his cronies had run City Hall "as a criminal enterprise."
Corruption was deeply rooted when David Cicilline became mayor. Cleaning the Augean Stables would have been easier than City Hall. The people had lost faith, and businesses refused to even consider locating in Providence.
I served on a group that drafted an ethics ordinance for the city of Providence, and Mayor Cicilline helped win its passage in 2006. The City Council has played a strong role in restoring the city, and I believe Providence has a more accountable government today than at any time in its modern history.
But huge fiscal challenges remain.
As mayor of Providence, David Cicilline sought help at the State House from nonprofit institutions and from taxpayers.
Sadly, state support for the cities has dropped, and aside from Johnson & Wales University, the "meds and eds" have refused to pay their fair share of the costs – both under Mayor Cicilline and Mayor Angel Taveras.
Taxpayers shouldered the burden.
Worst of all, the compounding COLAs for retired police and firefighters defy the ability of struggling taxpayers. Ten firefighters retired with salaries that averaged $57,100 per year. Today their compounded COLAs force the city to pay each one an average $150,996 per year.
No influx of new businesses or homeowners can cover such relentless increases.
David Cicilline should have listed these problems when he ran for Congress in 2010. He had not created the city's structural deficit, and he had worked mightily to address it. His mistake was to understate the fiscal realities that worsened as our nation staggered through its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
I find peculiar irony that those who established extravagant obligations now scapegoat David Cicilline. I believe he did much good for Rhode Island and for Providence. I will vote to keep him in Congress.
H. Philip West Jr. served 18 years as executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. In retirement, he teaches Ethics in Public Administration at URI and is writing a book about historic Rhode Island reforms between 1986 and 2006.