Chafee Budget Bashing — Not! And Yay Odeum

What to love and loathe about living in East Greenwich this week.

Cue eye roll, please. Reading the Patch article on , your conclusion might be that we are in a big financial doo doo. One word: Perspective. Or a better word: Woonsocket. Actually, why budget myself? Let’s add Providence, Central Falls and Cranston to the mix. Do I wish that governments wouldn’t renege on its promises? Of course. But I also wish for world peace, a cell phone service that doesn't cut out on Tillinghast and a really good Indian restaurant to come back to Main Street, but I’m not holding my breath for any of those to come true either.

Obviously, we will feel the state’s belt tightening in our own town’s budget. But, let’s compare these apples and oranges for a moment.... . The public libraries are struggling to stay open in Central Falls and literally required a Hollywood-type last minute rescue with money coming from Viola Davis ($1,000) and Alex Baldwin ($10,000). Meryl Streep also put her two cents — or rather, $10,000 in — to local charter school the Segue Institute for Learning, which was also facing closure.

East Greenwich just built a brand new middle school. Woonsocket actually considered closing all of its school as a way to make up its $10 MILLION DOLLAR deficit (they decided not to, but the fact that it was even on the table is enough to keep parents in that town up nights).

East Greenwich just approved $20,000 to STUDY the feasibility of moving the fire department. In Cranston, Mayor Allan W. Fung said that unless things changed, he would have to eliminate trash collection, services to the elderly and recreation programs for children, as well as reduce the size of the police force and fire department to minimize their budget black hole while Coventry has a total unfunded pension liability of $62 million currently. 

In East Greenwich, there may be one too many empty storefronts on Main Street, but the town is still working. In Providence, the lights are about to go out. Receivership is looming as the government tries to close the $22.5 million operating deficit.

So sure, we have what seems to be the never-ending problem with the school playing fields and (but the cost will not come out of the town’s pocket) and that sudden $1.6 million debt seems like a kick in the teeth, but in the general Rhode Island schemes of things, our zip code is actually doing okay. 

To gild the lily, here are some more sobering facts: According to Moody’s credit rating agency, "Local governments in Rhode Island are experiencing economic weakness, revenue stagnation and pension expense growth that are more acute than in most other states and are likely to persist into the future. We expect few if any rating upgrades and a continuing trend of downgrade activity in the coming year." Bottom line, rather than Newport mansions and Narragansett chic, our state is a place where the roads and bridges rank among the worst in the nation and where jobs are particularly hard to find. Unemployment rose faster here during the 2009-11 recession than in any other state. Is our town’s financial stability a perfect storm of a fiscally-prudent town and school council (rare as sighting of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker), a wealthy town base and an economy that is slowly returning? 

I am sure smarter people than me have an opinion on that — and hopefully will air them in the comment section.

All I know is, as much as I want to rant about Chafee’s decision, I can’t. 

RAVE: In true Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney style, the Odeum Board pulled out the stops and . Who woulda thunk it? A year ago, it looked like a downtown theater was thing of the past. The Ocean State Theatre Co. decided to locate elsewhere. The Academy Players moved on. The Town Council felt that we had to have more than pipe dreams and a desire to make it on Broadway before putting money into the theatre. But the Odeum Board became The Little Engine that Could. They got a , fired up their fundraising, listened to complaints about accessibility and organization and got serious about play acting. These small-town theaters used to be the life blood of a town’s Main Street. It’s no coincidence that as downtown arts centers and cinemas moved to the outskirts of cities in America, the downtowns began to deteriorate. While our Main Street has managed to hold its head above water, we still lost an important destination place when the Odeum closed. So huge applause — Odeum Board, be prepared to take a bow!

Jill Stange March 17, 2012 at 11:36 AM
Rant Extraordinaire! Perspective is hard to come by these days. Let's not forget our neighbor... West Warwick. The state of this state is starting to look more like a Caribbean island than Rhode Island.
Chuck Barton March 17, 2012 at 01:21 PM
The rant about Chaffee's budget misses several points. First, the reduction of 5% is designed to balance the budget, not move money from wealthy cities and towns to poor ones. The reduction of 5% does not save taxpayers or benefit poorer communities a nickel, it just moves the burden from one taxing authority (the state) to the town. Second, Woonsocket and other poorer communities do get more support from the state than East Greenwich, both in actual dollars and in percentage of budget. Central Falls school system is entirely paid for by the state. The rant seems to want to make EG feel guilty for getting state aid at the expense of other cities and towns, when in fact we get very little and the problem in the other cities and towns is not lack of state aid but lack of financial discipline. Third, East Greenwich has been well-managed. We tax enough to pay our bills, including required pension contributions. Most of the cities and towns that are in financial difficulty need to take responsibility for their problems - it was mismanagement and short term thinking that dug them into a hole, not just local demographics. And it was not lack of state aid that caused their problems.
Jill Stange March 17, 2012 at 02:35 PM
This may be true, but, at the risk of sounding cliché, you can't bleed a rock. I don't think Lisa's intent was to make us feel guilty and if that was the effect some self examination may be in order. The fact is that the tax base in poorer communities is lower across the board. It is simple math; lower income, lower tax revenue. When you say, "take responsibility for their problems," who do you mean? The public official's who "lack financial discipline," or the kids in Woonsocket and their working-poor parents who can't afford school supplies and lunch, let alone daycare from April-June if the schools close. Also, may I respectfully suggest that "their" problems are "our" problems. Isn’t it easier to responsibly manage a fiscal budget when you have the tax dollars to do so. Poor communities don't have a monopoly on corruption and mismanagement. You can argue that EG has been well-managed, and that may be true, but when it comes to "public" education, it is just plain unfair that kids in poorer communities have to pay the price. Poor communities should get more than their share of state funding because they don't have the funding to run schools and parks and libraries from their tax base. Perhaps we in EG should feel a bit guilty. Perhaps the aid we receive is at the expense of some kid in Woonsocket. A buck is a buck.
GameMaker March 17, 2012 at 03:14 PM
As noted, Rhode Island does have a variable grant system for state aid to schools, which helps to compensate somewhat for variable tax bases. In the end, however, the people of Woonsocket have to take responsibility for the incredible mismanagement that has gotten their school system to its current state. They elected those people--we did not. The same applies for Central Falls--if you've followed the stories in the Journal over the past few months, it's just an incredible story of malfeasance by politicians who were elected over and over and over again. If communities are willing to do this to themselves, there's only so much that can be done.
Bob Plain March 17, 2012 at 04:43 PM
Hi Chuck, The 5% reduction is designed reallocate resources away from affluent suburban towns to poorer urban cities. When the state funds suburban school construction costs, it is subsidizing one of the biggest population shifts in American history - the migration to the suburbs. This migration decimated the property tax base in urban communities, like Providence and Pawtucket, and created flush property tax bases in the suburbs, like in East Greenwich and Barrington. For some reason, and this isn't endemic to Rhode Island at all, we decided to aid the winners of this migration, which in effect punished the losers. Now, with a little hindsight, we are starting to reverse that course, albeit a little too late... While bigger municipalities with more need do in general get more state aid than smaller, more well-off communities, it’s not as much as you may think. And, more importantly, it’s not as much as it should be. Just consider how much in state aid East Greenwich will get because it renovated its school library. That would be more than enough to fix the entire ailing library system in Central Falls. The amount East Greenwich will get in state aid for its Cole project would be more than enough to fix the budget deficit that caused Central Falls to file for bankruptcy - with enough left over to renovate libraries in both towns! Bob Plain
Jill Stange March 17, 2012 at 08:16 PM
Bob Plain is much more knowledgeable about the specifics. Read his post and if you still think it is fair ask yourself this question: What about the children who are raised in these communities?" This is why we have a public education system. If you think it is “their” problem, then maybe the state should bus all those kids to our schools when “their” schools close.
Len Curado March 17, 2012 at 09:26 PM
Wasn't some thing supposed to be done with the lights in Cole? I have to go by it when they are off. Parking lot empty, no one apparently around and from one end to the other. Len Curado
GameMaker March 17, 2012 at 09:50 PM
:-) Yes, Bob's post was more detailed, but I think we grasp the same specifics. The issue for me is, "where do we draw the line when it comes to ameliorating other people's willful mistakes?" I genuinely would love to be able to help every kid out there, but how far can that realistically work, given my limited resources? My family? East Greenwich? Rhode Island? Farther? Is any of this fair? Not by a long shot, imho. I wish to Pete we, as a country had the political will to spend our resources on these issues, but we do not. And so, communities _are_ going to have to take responsiblity for their actions because neither the will nor the resources to bail them out should they get lazy or greedy or apathetic isn't there...and especially in RI.
Betsy Shimberg March 18, 2012 at 02:40 AM
Lisa - I always enjoy your rants and raves. One correction - you write that Meryl Streep's donation was to help "the Segue Institute for Learning, which was also facing closure." Segue is nowhere near closing; rather, they are trying to raise funds to purchase and renovate their current building. More about them here: http://segueifl.org/
Frederick Remington March 18, 2012 at 01:59 PM
Bob Plain specific, Jill? Not a word in his vocabulary. Where is the data? This is another rant, not an analysis.
Lisa Sussman March 24, 2012 at 11:48 AM
Thanks, Betsy - mea culpa. As to the other comments, my intention was not to make anyone feel guilty. I feel incredibly lucky to live in this town whose financial problems are, for a multitude of reasons, small potatoes compared to both other towns in our state and around the country. That's all, folks!


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