Talk about a tale of two cities. After becoming a nationally heralded emblem of
urban renewal, Providence turns out to have had at least a handful of ethically
challenged public officials and guys whose notion of honor owes more to
omerta than integrity. It's no wonder that Plunder Dome prosecutor
Richard W. Rose framed his closing argument around a Dickensian theme:
"Renaissance City or city for sale?"
Naturally, Richard M. Egbert, Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr.'s lawyer,
summed up the case quite differently, citing Cianci as the visionary behind the
city's heightened status, and damning convicted prosecution witness David C.
Ead, the former vice chairman of the Board of Tax Assessment Review, as a
highly unreliable source of information. A 12-member US District Court jury was
still pondering these competing versions of the truth as the Phoenix
went to press.
At minimum, the half-dozen previous Plunder Dome convictions and the seamy
revelations at trial indicate some degree of corruption within city government.
The next mayor -- whether it turns out to be Buddy Cianci or someone else --
will be expected to bring a greater degree of transparency and accountability
to municipal government.
The concept of a disparity between two Providences -- a visitor-friendly
destination with great theater and good restaurants, and a gritty place with
struggling neighborhoods, under-performing schools, and a shrinking tax base --
was familiar to many even before Plunder Dome burst into public view. Indeed,
Cianci's mayoral challengers are steadily tapping into this theme.
At the same time, Providence, with its quirky heterogeneity and many other
considerable assets, remains light years ahead of Worcester, Massachusetts, and
other similarly sized communities in New England. Out-of-town writers covering
the trial seem intrigued by the local politics and impressed by the city's
But Providence still faces a number of difficult challenges, many of which
were more easily overlooked in the time before the FBI raided City Hall in
April 1999, lifting the lid on the government's investigation into municipal
corruption. Regardless of the upshot of Plunder Dome, the way in which these
are handled will greatly influence the future of the city. Here's a look at
some of the most serious issues:
IN THE halcyon months before Plunder Dome became public, Cianci greeted an
interviewer with his characteristic upbeat rap about how Providence had raised
the self-esteem of the entire state. But when the subject turned to upgrading
the city's beleaguered schools, he acknowledged that bringing about the city's
signature accomplishments was a cakewalk by comparison. "I can move rivers,
railroad tracks, build an ice skating rink, fix the zoo, and it doesn't mean as
much," Cianci told me in a 1999 interview. "If you don't have a good
educational system you can forget about it, because no one's going to want to
stay here. This is the biggest challenge that any mayor has."
The Providence Public Schools have experienced some progress since then, but
the challenge remains largely the same: overhauling an entrenched system and
educating 25,000 students, most of them poor and many with limited
English-language skills, with a relatively meager amount of resources. And
although a poorly educated workforce represents an economic competitiveness
issue for the entire state, the importance of this often goes unrecognized
beyond city borders -- perhaps, in part, because the vast majority of students
in Providence are Latino, black, and Asian.
In February, the state Department of Education announced that all of the
public schools in Providence, except Classical High School, were rated as low
performing. The system has been plagued by rates higher than the statewide
average for student absences, teacher grievances, high school dropouts, and
other troubling indicators. The vast majority of schools, though, were rated as
improving in the state survey, and officials point out that the ratings were
based on test scores over the last four years, only one of which included new
school reform initiatives.
Observers like Richard J. Hoag, president and CEO of Providence Washington
Insurance, who chairs the Business Education Roundtable, are encouraged by
changes that has been made since Diana Lam became superintendent in 1999.
"Educators in the Providence system are taking seriously the challenges, and I
believe they are beginning to make the corrections have to be made," says Hoag,
"but there's still a long way to go."
Hoag cites the greatest obstacles to improved public education in Providence
as the high rate of illiteracy among students; the lack of money to truly
address broad-based reform (although per-pupil spending in Providence has
ranked near the top of the state, the comparable figure for general education
is far lower, meaning there's a paucity of resources for mainstream students in
the district with the greatest number of youth in costly special education
programs); and general apathy by a public that doesn't demand enough from the
New initiatives may yield improvements in student literacy. But although
Providence has demonstrated success in attracting alternative sources of
support, finding sufficient funding remains difficult, particularly with the
state turning to tobacco settlement funds to balance the budget. Even more
troubling, says Hoag, is a recent finding by Jobs for the Future, a Boston
employment development agency, which found that almost half of Rhode Islanders
don't have the literacy skills to work in jobs that offer enough to support a
family. If a lack of emphasis on education is so pronounced among adults, it
makes it that more difficult to nurture learning among children.
Adding to the uncertainty facing the Providence schools is the fate of
Superintendent Lam, who is being sought for an interview by school officials in
Portland, Oregon. Although Lam told the Providence Journal last week
that she didn't have a flight to Portland on her calendar, it would certainly
represent a significant disruption to the system if she left at this early
stage of reform.
DESPITE THE economic slowdown of recent years, luxury condominiums have
continued to sprout around Providence, sometimes selling for surprisingly high
prices. At the same time, the cost of rental housing has risen dramatically in
different neighborhoods, meaning, for example, that two-bedroom apartments in
the West End are renting in the range of $600-$1000.
In some respects, the situation mirrors the increased demand that has come
with Providence's heightened status as a place to live and work. But taxes have
also been increased for many landlords, who, not surprisingly, transfer the
cost to tenants.
Asked about the consequence, one housing specialist says, "People are paying a
disproportionately high amount of their income for housing. It just lowers the
whole quality of life. It means you don't have funds to improve yourself in
The growing cost of housing, beyond being a bread-and-butter issue for
everyday folks, could also diminish Providence's traditional appeal as an
accessible home for budding creative types. The city remains a bargain compared
to Boston or New York, but housing costs have already caused some artists to
look for more affordable digs in places like Pawtucket and Fall River,
The shortage of affordable housing can be seen in the way that a 32-unit
affordable housing development, organized by the Olneyville Housing
Corporation, attracted close to 500 applications. "The housing organizations
are doing a good job, but there's just so much more to do," says architect
Stephen Durkee. "You could double them and that still wouldn't be adequate. It
THE PLEASANT AMBIENCE that greets visitors to WaterFire, Trinity Rep,
and other local attractions masks a somber reality: Providence's financial
needs outstrip capacity in a city with a shrinking tax base, a growing number
of poor residents, and where almost 40 percent of the land belongs to
tax-exempt institutions. Although Providence is hardly alone among Rhode Island
cities in being overly dependent on property taxes, this combination makes it
more difficult to attract new industry and shifts more of the burden to
residents in the city with the greatest needs.
According to a recent study by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council
(RIPEC), a business-backed group, Providence's tax levy as a percentage of full
value is three-point-two percent, the highest among the state's 39 cities and
towns. This rate of taxation is about 25 percent more than what inspired the
Proposition 21/2 tax revolt in Massachusetts in the early '80s.
Gary S. Sasse, RIPEC's executive director, dismisses the possibility of a
Cranston-style fiscal meltdown in Providence, provided that sufficient
attention is paid to the city's financial management, but the city still faces
a number of stiff economic challenges:
* The lack of a systemic state-local fiscal structure that recognizes the
long-term problems of the city threatens to undermine education reform and
* A combination of demographic and social changes impact the city's fiscal
outlook. As Sasse notes, "The vitality of neighborhoods depends on having a
viable, stable middle class." But even with Providence attracting a growing
number of empty nesters and other new residents in recent years, the number of
poor residents in the city has grown over the last decade, according to Census
* The tax rate on tangible property is high (almost 20 percent more than in
East Providence, for example), making it more difficult to attract firms that
have major investment in equipment.
* Payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) money provided to cities by the state was
recently changed, from a formula of 27 percent to a specific appropriation,
which effectively translates to about 24 percent, in the 2003 budget. As the
home to universities, hospitals, and state offices, Providence has the greatest
amount of tax-exempt institutions in the state, and the PILOT reduction is
equal to a $1.6 million cut in revenue from the state.
* Cianci's $528 million city budget for 2002-2003 was based on an assumption
that the state would provide an additional $30 million in aid. The actual
amount turned out to be far less, meaning that the city faces a budget gap of
about $20 million. "That's going to translate to more difficult decisions for
the city," says Peter Marino, RIPEC's director of policy.
* Providence's pension system faces an unfunded liability of about $500
IN A CITY where the signature accomplishments include reconfiguring the path of
several rivers, it would seemingly be a snap to adequately manage basic
services. Residents in different Providence neighborhoods, however, cite
persistent frustration about quality-of-life concerns.
As Kari Lang, executive director of the West Broadway Neighborhood
Association, says, "The complaints I hear routinely from neighbors center
around trash and rats -- that there's too much trash on the streets . . . that
the trash program isn't working because the trash cans are overflowing without
lids, and a continual problem of rats in the neighborhoods." Streets need to be
sweeped more regularly, she says, and more workers are needed to maintain city
Jennifer Cole Steele, an activist who lives in Federal Hill, also identifies
trash and rats as perennial concerns, along with lax enforcement of violations
involving noise and dogs -- a situation that has deteriorated, she says, since
the demise of the police department's separate community policing program.
"There are laws on the books. If they were just enforced half the time, I would
feel better about living in Providence," Cole Steele says.
The activist describes herself and her husband -- a dual-income couple with no
children -- as the kind of residents who are much needed by the city. But
despite her affection for Providence and recognition that city life involves
some hassles, she's getting frustrated enough to consider moving. "The middle
class, I think, is getting really alienated and they're happy to move out of
the city at some point," Cole Steele says, "because it's too much of a struggle
to get the noise down or get dogs to stop barking. It shouldn't be so much of a
TO HIS CREDIT, Colonel Richard T. Sullivan, the interim chief, has done some
positive things while guiding the Providence police during what continues to be
a difficult time for the department. But as previously reported in
Phoenix (see "Waiting to begin," News, February 15), real change won't
come about until after wrongdoing within the department -- including the kind
of favoritism revealed during Plunder Dome testimony by former chief Urbano
Prignano Jr. -- is settled in a credible way. And with the imminent selection
of a new permanent chief, it remains to be seen whether Sullivan will get the
The main challenge facing the police department has remained largely unchanged
for more than three years: to deliver the more responsive brand of community
policing long sought by residents. A lesser task is to more effectively manage,
perhaps with help from private interests, the headaches that come with downtown
Providence's popularity as a nightlife destination.
As it is, city councilors and neighborhood activists remain unhappy about
Sullivan's decision to disband the separate community-policing unit. Sullivan
explained his decision by citing the start of efforts to integrate community
policing throughout the department. It seems as if community policing has yet
to take a firm hold, however, and there's still a long way to go in helping
residents with quality-of-life concerns.
Ethics in government
OF the outcome of the Plunder Dome trial, there are steps that could promote
the cause of good government in Providence. H. Philip West Jr., executive
director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, points to a proposal conceived by a
Common Cause task force, chaired by gubernatorial candidate Myrth York and
former attorney general Jeff Pine, that would essentially ban fundraising on
Although Common Cause has yet to make an aggressive effort to promote the
proposal -- similar to a prohibition on fundraising in federal offices -- West
is confident that it would pass Constitutional muster. "There's no magic in
ethics laws or in campaign laws, because any law that you write, someone can
evade," he says. "But there is a value in breaking up the easy assembly
On the statewide front, state Senator Aram G. Garabedian of Cranston has filed
a bill in each of the last four years that would make it a state felony to give
campaign contributions of greater than $500 in cash. Existing law limits cash
donations to any candidate in a calendar year to $25, but testimony in the
Plunder Dome trial indicates that the law has been flouted. Garabedian's bill
has gone nowhere fast, but West believes it could give an important tool to
state prosecutors. "We need an AG ready to go after the prosecution of
white-collar crime," he says. "We shouldn't have to wait until the feds come
West also sees a need to debate the merits of term limits for the mayor's
office in Providence. "You can argue that both ways," he says. "[But] you
always have a danger with a powerful executive, regardless of what's going on
with his life, that people will trust him and vote for him." Drawing a
comparison to the adoption of presidential term limits after Franklin D.
Roosevelt's record four terms, West says, "We shouldn't have a perpetual
presidency and a perpetual mayor."
The vision thing
FOR ALL the challenges it faces, Providence has a number of valuable assets,
including the real affection that many residents have for the city. But
Providence also risks becoming a victim of its own success.
After the city has served as a source of inspiration for many other
communities, some observers are concerned that the forward momentum in
celebrating the arts has been lost. "I just hope we don't wind up losing ground
when we were really innovative and were responsible for inspiring a lot of
these communities," says Umberto Crenca, artistic director of AS220, the
nonprofit arts space on Empire Street. "We have attracted a lot of young,
talented people based on the hype and we can continue doing this, but we need
to continue the conversation."
The need to regain momentum is evident in other areas -- from the slow
unfolding of Downcity's envisioned status as an arts and entertainment district
to the larger question of fostering smart development in different corners of
the city. There's also an incipient brain drain with the departure of city
officials like Patricia McLaughlin, Cianci's director of administration, and
John Palmieri, the former director of planning and development.
It's certainly not the worst of times in Providence. But unless more attention
is devoted to these aforementioned concerns, it's unlikely to be the best of
Ian Donnis can be reached at email@example.com.
Issue Date: June 21 - 27, 2002