Providence seeks to borrow $45M for infrastructure repairs without voter approval

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Less than a year after a dispute between the mayor’s office and City Council caused the collapse of a proposed $40-million infrastructure bond, the two sides have come back to the table with a new plan to borrow $45 million for the same purpose.

A resolution requesting that the Providence Public Buildings Authority (PPBA) borrow $45 million to “finance the design, construction repair, rehabilitation, replacement and improvement of infrastructure in the city’s neighborhoods” has been added to the agenda for Thursday’s City Council meeting. The resolution is sponsored by Finance Committee Chairman John Igliozzi, a Silver Lake Democrat.

“The requested financing of $45 million in funds, to be borrowed under the Providence Public Buildings Authority, will help ensure this critical work is carried out to improve streets, sidewalks, bridges and so much more,” Mayor Jorge Elorza said in a statement.

Elorza, a first-term Democrat, noted that Providence voters overwhelmingly approved a $40-million bond question that appeared on last year’s ballot, but he and the City Council could not come to terms on a spending plan for the proceeds that was required to be approved prior to Election Day.

The PPBA does not need voter approval to borrow funds.

“Aligned with the city’s capital improvement plan this strategic action and investment will help improve overall quality of life in the city and create a dependable schedule of improvements for the long term,” Elorza said.

A spokesperson for Elorza said the city will use its capital improvement plan as a guide for the projects that will be funded through the bond.

The plan recommends spending about $40.5 million during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 fiscal years on a wide array of projects, including recreational facility improvements, building repairs in City Hall and sewer repairs. About $23.5 million will be set aside for street paving and sidewalk repairs.

It’s unclear whether the City Council will seek to alter any of the projects on the list, but the council is required to approve PPBA bonds. Last year council leadership and Elorza initially disagreed over how funds should be spent before the group cited financial concerns as the reason it withdrew its support for the bond question.

That’s why Elorza is now turning to the PPBA.

Founded in 1987 “for the purpose of maintaining and repairing city-owned assets and for the construction of new facilities through alternative financing techniques,” the PPBA is one of several avenues the city can take to borrow funds without going to the voters. The city can also use the quasi-public Providence Redevelopment Agency (PRA) for urban renewal projects or tax-increment financing (TIF) for other development projects.

The PBA holds title to all city buildings and works with the state on construction or renovation projects involving public schools. (A state program reimburses municipalities for the vast majority of school-related construction projects.)

The PBA’s board is chaired by developer Stanley Weiss and also includes state Rep. Scott Slater, James McLoughlin, Vincent Kilbridge and Ron Crosson. Last year, on the same day Eyewitness News reported the board had repeatedly failed to file its meeting minutes with the Rhode Island secretary of state’s office, it filed the minutes for 10 months of meetings.

Records show $288 million of the city’s $424 million in taxpayer-backed debt came from 15 bonds issued through the PBA as of last year. One of those bonds was a controversial 2011 green energy bond that involved the agency issuing a 15-year, $35-million bond where just $5 million of the proceeds went toward upgrading energy efficiency in city buildings and the rest was used plug a massive budget deficit.

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