Providence mayoral candidates talk taxes, ‘Superman’ building at forum

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Democratic candidates for Providence mayor said Tuesday they want to hold the line on property taxes, grow the police force and find a way to make use of the vacant “Superman” building in downtown without completely bailing out its owners.

The comments from City Council President Michael Solomon, Jorge Elorza, Brett Smiley and Chris Young came during a candidate forum held at the Summit Commons on Hillside Avenue Tuesday evening. The two-hour event was hosted by the Summit Neighborhood Association and moderated by Rhode Island College professor Thomas Schmeling.

The candidates largely agreed that Providence needs a more competitive tax policy and safer streets, but each man offered his own vision for achieving those goals.

Solomon, the owner of Wes’ Rib House in Olneyville and a member of the City Council since 2007, touted his efforts to help close the $110-million structural deficit the city faced in 2011 and said he has a goal to invest $250 million over a decade to rebuild Providence’s crumbling schools. He said he supports offering tax breaks to developers eyeing the vacant I-195 land because the “land will just sit there” if nothing is done.

Elorza, a former Housing Court judge who lives in Silver Lake, painted himself as the only candidate on stage who is just as comfortable talking to kids in the city’s poorer neighborhoods as he is sitting in the board room at the Rhode Island Foundation. He said Providence needs to “reverse the brain drain” by retaining young people when they graduate college and promised to double exports from the Port of Providence in five years.

Smiley, a former Water Supply Board chairman and East Side resident, said he wants to make sure only “excellent teachers” are eligible for tenure and argued that Providence needs to become a more public transit-friendly city. He said the city should begin “regionalizing our economy” by making it easier to get to Boston through the use of high-speed rail.

Young, who has been running for mayor and several other offices for more than a decade, was critical of his opponents for having a connection to incumbent Mayor Angel Taveras. He said the only way to solve Providence economic woes is to tax Brown University.

The winner of the Sept. 9 Democratic primary will take on Republican Daniel Harrop and independent Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., the city’s former mayor. A fifth Democrat, Reinaldo Catone, is also running in the primary. He was invited, but did not attend Tuesday’s forum. Taveras is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor after one term in office.

Each candidate suggested Providence’s $19.25 per $1,000 of assessed value tax rate for residential property owners is too high and all of them said they oppose an ordinance to reduce the $33.75 per $1,000 tax rate for landlords beginning next year, arguing that the plan could result in tax increases across the city. All of the candidates said they are willing to offer tax subsidies to woo new businesses, depending on the deal.

Although few sparks flew during the debate, Smiley was critical of Solomon for being unable to convince the 15-member council to sustain Taveras’s veto on the landlord tax break ordinance. Solomon fired back: “I’m not a dictator.”

On crime, each candidate said adding more officers to the beat should be a top priority. The city currently has 399 officers, down from 498 in 2001, according Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare. Elorza suggested every new officer should spend their first days on the job walking in different neighborhoods and said his ultimate goal is to have every household in the city know at least one police officer. Solomon said he’ll launch another police academy as soon as he takes office; the city is expected to hire roughly 50 new officers from its current academy later this year. Young wants an additional 150 officers by 2017.

Smiley, who called for a supplemental sales tax on all gun and ammunition sales in the state as part of a comprehensive public safety plan released late last year, said Taveras and the City Council “dragged their feet” on launching another police academy, leading to another summer of crime. He was highly critical of Taveras for being unable to attend a neighborhood crime discussion on the East Side in recent weeks.

As for the vacant skyscraper at 111 Westminster Street, all of the candidates said they are open to discussing city support for the developer, but indicated the deal must benefit the city. Smiley said he is unsure whether apartments many city residents won’t be able to afford is the best solution. Young suggested putting a Hard Rock Café on the first floor.

On the undercard of Tuesday’s event was a three-way forum for the Democrats vying to replace former House Speaker Gordon Fox in District 4. Those candidates included Teach for American executive director Heather Tow-Yick; community organizer Aaron Regunberg; and lawyer Miriam Ross.

Correction: Jorge Elorza’s plan for the Port of Providence would double exports within five years. The original version of the report stated his plan would be complete by 2018.

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s