Providence voters this year will see Question No. 8 on their Election Day ballot, asking them to consider a $40 million infrastructure bond. Regardless of the vote, however, city politics appears to have already dashed any hopes of selling the bond, leaving officials wondering how they will pay to fix such basic city infrastructure as streets, sidewalks and wastewater systems.
“Instead of investing in our city and sending a message that Providence is open for business, we are allowing petty politics to get in the way of supporting safe and secure infrastructure,” said Mayor Jorge O. Elorza.
The mayor’s comments came following an Oct. 20 City Council meeting when councilors voted to withdraw support for the bond, saying the city couldn’t afford to take on new debt.
“In recent months, I’ve grown more and more concerned about the city’s finances,” said Sabina Matos, councilwoman and president pro tempore. Some city councilors, however, have sided with the mayor, saying their colleagues’ rationale is a thinly masked excuse for having not received full autonomy over about half of the $40 million bond. Originally, about $1.3 million was earmarked for each councilor to spend in their wards, respectively, but Elorza was unwilling to allow the money without first receiving specific plans from the councilors. Such plans did not materialize.
Without a funding plan, which is highly unlikely to emerge before Election Day on Nov. 8, the city will need an alternative way to pay for infrastructure improvements. And while some councilors say they’re protecting taxpayers by not issuing the new debt, long-deteriorating infrastructure also comes with costs.
The R.I. Department of Environmental Management, for instance, has warned the city since 2010 about its wastewater-treatment infrastructure, which isn’t in compliance with the Clean Water Act, a federal law that regulates water pollution. A portion of the $40 million infrastructure bond was supposed to go toward helping the city come into compliance.
If the city doesn’t work toward mitigating its wastewater-treatment systems, the state could start issuing fines monthly, retroactive to 2003. DEM could not immediately confirm the potential monthly fine amount.
Councilman Samuel Zurier is among the five members of the council to side with Elorza. In a newsletter he writes periodically for his ward, Zurier likened the lifeless ballot measure to an “electoral zombie” and urged voters to reject it.
“The ‘zombie bond’ will make Providence city government appear dysfunctional, not only to Providence residents, but also across the state,” he wrote. •