Building The Future…
My 7+2 Approach:
7 Ordinance Proposals+ 2 Charter Amendments for the City of Providence
We all want effective, transparent, and accountable government. One way to achieve that is to trace the money more clearly from our pockets to its end use in city government. Another is to strengthen the fundamental democratic unit; the council ward. The following proposed new ordinances for the City of Providence attempt to achieve both.
Ordinance Proposal No. 1: Delete “ward” and substitute “council.”
Goal: To reveal the importance of our most basic democratic unit; the city council.
Providence is divided into 15 wards. Each ward has approximately the same number of citizens. In a city of 19 square miles with approximately 191,000 people according to the 2020 U.S. Census, approximately 12,750 dwell in an area a little over a square mile.
That means that a citizen who wishes to represent a part of the 15-member City Council can run for that office with only a good pair of walking shoes and credit with a printer.
Candidates can run for office face to face with their constituents. Face to face communication is true communication. All else is a step down from that. This smallest democratic unit that exists on a personal level can minimize the muck and mire of social media.
All ward constituents are close to many pressing issues, for example: schools, police protection, noise complaints, litter, rats, pedestrian safety, and uneven sidewalks. No matter a constituent’s political preference at the city, state, and national level, at the local level we all are aiming for the basic goal; the peaceful enjoyment of our homes. Different Council candidates may have different approaches but I think we all generally are united in what we hope to achieve.
In Providence, this fifteenth part, the ward, is our entryway to this democracy that binds our City, the State, and the Republic. It’s the door knob that we all can turn to enter into direct participation.
Sadly, this important democratic unit has a misleading name. “Ward” works as a proper noun or surname. However “ward” as an American political unit is disturbing. It connotes passive subjugation to authority. The disabled, the incarcerated, and orphans are wards. If you are in a ward, you are aware that normal life happens somewhere else. How can a ward possibly describe a group of self-determined individuals free and responsible for the direction of government? Why are citizens organized under this term? The point is that they’re mostly not. So let’s do better.
In truth shouldn’t citizens counsel their Councilor? Shouldn’t the ward, this fifteenth part of the city, be its own council that elects its Councilor to sit on the City Council? Shouldn’t we consider ourselves to be “councils” who counsel our Councilor? Let’s set aside “ward” and introduce the far more accurate and inviting term “council.”
Ordinance Proposal No. 2: Publish and delineate each council’s (ward’s) contribution to the whole.
Goal: To increase citizen awareness of how we all contribute to the political process.
In order to operate the City’s government activities taxpayers of Providence pay over $350 million each year in property taxes. They pay even more in fees and retail food taxes. There’s presumably a great disparity in what each council contributes, but citizens most especially don’t know their own council’s (ward’s) contribution to the whole. We need to know precisely and concisely just how much each council/ward contributes.
Shouldn’t each council/ward know its exact contribution? Shouldn’t we separate out the commercial taxes, the residential taxes, the tangible taxes, and vehicular taxes paid from each council/ward? Shouldn’t each council/ward know the exact value of properties not taxed in their council ward, i.e. the schools, colleges, hospitals, and churches? Whether small or large all feel the burden. Citizens need to know and should know what their share of the burden is. Knowing this clarifies and helps us understand the true cost of government. We need to know that.
Ordinance Proposal No. 3: Create a “Citizen/Owner’s” financial website.
Goal: For citizens to understand their financial responsibility to the city.
If City constituents pay City taxes and are eligible to vote then they are therefore truly the Owners of the City.
Citizens/Owners need to look at the checkbook and see how it’s balanced.
The checkbook is on hand at the City website yet it’s not handy. The navigation of the site is sorely inadequate.
Go to www.providenceri.gov. The City finances are there: revenue and expenses. But they are layered deep among other layers of information about the City.
The City website is for general information: job postings, department contacts, events schedule, trash pickup days, things like that. It’s not for Owners. Owners need their own website that is carrying their own bank statement. The Owners need a website that is easy to navigate, user-friendly and educational in nature. With that in place we will quickly and easily learn these numbers.
Currently, as things stand, the dollars we spend on City government are kept from us, virtually hidden. Not only the cumulative statement on www.providenceri.gov but our own personal contributions are hidden as well. If we pay a mortgage, our City taxes are buried in the Principal/Insurance/Taxes sum of our monthly mortgage payment. If we rent and have a lease our City taxes are buried in our monthly rent check.
The prospect of budgeting and making choices with our tax dollars is a challenging one. It’s not like the stack of bills waiting for us every month. But we do pay into the city and how the city spends that money is actually our responsibility.
We need a website with a simple clear user experience that educates the user. We need a website that gathers the City finances from the existing general interest website and puts them front and center where we can read them easily, and, significantly, where we can experience the satisfaction of financial responsibility just as we do with our own checkbooks.
The goal should be to access a City website that presents a navigational dashboard that allows us to click tabs revealing exactly where our dollars are going. Each City function: police, fire, public works, administration, education, and pension liabilities all should have links that display each council/ward’s contribution.
Currently the City has 93 committees and commissions. We need to know: what’s the budget for each? What’s the running score of City expenses and revenues in real time? How can we be Owners and not have a feel and knowledge of this data? This objective is a straight forward one that shouldn’t be difficult to achieve.
Ordinance Proposal No. 4: Create a “Right of Revenue Retention” for each Council/Ward.
Goal: To understand, to educate, and to plan.
As citizens we are all “council members.” What good is seeing City dollar figures without some input as to how they are spent?
If we can understand what’s being spent in each council/ward we may appreciate that:
- We’re getting a good deal. That is, we don’t pay a lot but are getting a lot in return for our money.
- Or the opposite: we pay a lot and feel that we’ve overpaid.
Were we to have thorough access to such critical information then we should become better informed to suggest improvements.
An ordinance should be in place allowing each council/ward to retain its share of that which it contributes so that it can achieve a more efficient, transparent and accountable use of money.
Of course, the Mayor should be free to veto burdensome suggestions, but if enough council/wards begin showing a pattern of redirected spending proposals, then at some point it will no longer be in the Mayor’s interest to continue vetoing them. Rather, the Mayor will be moved to keep up with the times.
This ordinance would further government responsiveness and effectiveness in a dramatic way.
Ordinance Proposal No. 5: Create a “City Mission Statement” prioritizing core City functions and delimiting the extent of City responsibility.
Goal: To promote an understanding to all citizens what the basic focus of the city administration should be and what may be accomplished more efficiently by others outside of that administration.
A good start would be the reading of the beginning paragraphs of the City Charter set forth below:
Basic Provisions of the City of Providence Home Rule Charter:
101. – Title: The people of the City of Providence hereby establish this home rule Charter for the better conduct of their affairs and to secure for themselves the benefits and rights of self-government guaranteed by the Constitution of the State of Rhode Island. This Charter shall be cited as the Providence Home Rule Charter of 1980.
102. – Incorporation: The inhabitants of the City of Providence shall be a body politic and corporate under the name of the City of Providence and shall have, exercise and enjoy all the rights, immunities, powers, privileges and franchises and shall be subject to all the duties and obligations of a municipal corporation under the Constitution and laws of the State of Rhode Island and of the United States of America.
This statement of the Home Rule Charter doesn’t state what the actual duties of City Government entails.
Let’s clarify this.
We need a concise mission statement to set forth what is proper to relegate to City Government and what may be extraneous to it.
There are City functions that are important and necessary and that only the City can provide; police and fire protection, public works, planning, licensing, and administration.
Providence has 93 committees and commissions. We have a zoo and a natural history museum. We’re responsible for providing water to other towns. These may be important functions but are they properly a part of the City’s core function? Can some of these functions be better administered by other agencies (state or federal) and non-profit institutions? Can the city develop a simple organizational flow chart and infrastructure that doesn’t overwhelm the common citizen? This needs to be seriously explored in an objective, non-partisan way.
Ordinance Proposal No. 6: Create a Pension-funded City REIT.
Goal: To build real estate in the city with city employee pension funds, creating value for the pension funds and to make visible improvements to the city.
Can a portion of the pension stock and bond portfolios be allocated to improvements in the City? Can City workers see some of their dollars awarded for improvements in Providence? Examples might be:
- Housing. Meeting the current housing shortage in the city either providing for city employees or other mortgagees on new property.
- Industrial or mercantile buildings. Building and leasing state of the art new spaces to businesses in Providence.
- Renovating and restoring existing structures to current needs.
By creating a Real Estate Investment Trust, all Providence citizens get to see their tax dollars at work in real time. This will double the value of pension contributions: once for pensioners and again for all citizens who’ll benefit from new real estate contributing to the quality of city life.
Ordinance Proposal No. 7: Empower parents to direct tax money for their children’s education.
Goal: To close the gap between parents and school administration.
The future of Providence is largely resting on the shoulders of our children.
All parents want their children to become happy, fulfilled, contributing adults.
For children, their development is composed of three parts:
- Their natural endowment.
- Their home life.
- Their formal education.
In Providence, the circumstances of formal public education have lost their natural linkage to parents. Despite all good intentions, the growth of the City educational establishment has outgrown its linkage to parents. The juggernaut of the educational establishment marches on requiring more and more dollars without results.
Article XII of the State Constitution states it is the duty of the General Assembly to “promote” general education. It is not the State’s duty to own it.
Parents are forced to submit or buy their way out of the system paying over and above their education tax dollars in order to meet the needs of their children.
It’s long past time for parents to be free to determine their children’s education without being penalized for it.
If we look at the City Budget for Education the City contributes $130 million and the State (which now operates the City Schools) contributes another $264 million for a total of approximately $394 million.
There are roughly 22,000 students in Providence Schools.
$394,000,000 / 22,000 students = $17,909/student.
Of course, this calculation is simplistic. There are special needs students and building costs that skew away from the equal treatment of each student. Private school students, approximately 7,000, aren’t included in the student total. But can’t we allocate a healthy portion of the $17,909 to parents to determine themselves the right fit for their children? Can’t parents decide where their children are educated? Can’t a sum be allocated for parents to find that right fit for the family?
The seven ordinances proposed are an encouragement for citizens to take up the responsibility that now especially falls to us to determine the fate of the City. These proposals are set forth to encourage and enhance citizen participation in government and to increase the understanding what government actually financially costs.
Two final proposals beyond the 7 ordinances proposed in this paper are city charter amendments. The City Charter, or properly the Home Rule Charter, is the document the State issues that grants authority to the City to make its own rules, or ordinances, that govern the City. So the following amendments would need State government approval. Ordinances only need city council and mayoral approval.
1st City Charter Amendment proposed:
All winners of elections who lead with less than half the total percentage of votes cast will face a prompt second election between the second and first place candidates only.
Goal: To give assurance of the popular will of the people.
Imagine a mayoral or council race with three or more candidates. No one receives a majority, 50% or more of votes. The leading candidate may be only popular with his/her supporters and have no other candidate aligned with his/her approach to city policy. The runoff election between the two leading candidates lets voters who voted for 3rd or lower place candidates affirm the candidate closest to their position that may have been 2nd but can now have a clear majority from which to govern. Instituting a runoff vote will also give encouragement to more potential candidates because now even a last place finish that is in single digits percentagewise may still influence the outcome.
2nd City Charter Amendment proposed:
In Council seat elections all contests without at least half of the voting roll’s electors voting will forfeit a seat until the next election.
Goal: To instill in the citizenry the importance of their role in their participation in government.
Some final thoughts:
The silver attribute of democracy is that it is participatory twice.
Once, when citizens decide at the ballot box who will form policy as legislators, and again, when they decide at the ballot box who shall execute it.
The tarnishing of it comes when the democratic state is dominated by citizens divided equally and viciously, and can’t agree as to what constitutes security and prosperity. Division is best overcome at the local level where democratic disputes can be resolved among those most immediately affected.
All the policies of state win democratic approval when they signify one of three underlying assumptions, all of which concern money:
- The citizens can keep their money.
- The state will give you money.
- The promise of the noble state use of your money.
Each smaller political unit collapses in the face of the larger, for the money of the larger controls the smaller. A monetary gift to the constituents of the smaller political unit can buy loyalty to the larger unit at the expense of the smaller.
Thus, the city is beholden to the state and the state beholden to the nation, which controls the actual printing of money.
Now we’re in the familiar cycle of history where the printing of too much money has become a problem. For those who could use it most, it doesn’t go into their hands, but through their hands. This flood doesn’t float all boats nor does it contribute “to form a more perfect union.”
These proposals for the City of Providence are set forth to strengthen the smaller democratic units against the ambitions of the larger and “promote the general welfare and to secure the blessings of liberty” by strengthening our effectiveness as enlightened citizens.