Dear Mr. Chafee: How to avoid another Central Falls

Next Tuesday, Lincoln Chafee will be inaugurated as Rhode Island’s 58th governor. What should he do when he takes office? To get some ideas, I asked five of the state’s smartest citizens what advice they would offer the new governor.

Today’s essay comes from Tom Sgouros, author of “Ten Things You Don’t Know About Rhode Island” and a former Democratic candidate for treasurer.

In conversations with people about the ills facing our state, the litany of woes is long, and fairly familiar. People complain about property taxes, the car tax, pension woes, the state budget, and more. Central Falls gets a special shout-out these days (and how anyone thinks they’re going to be able to hire good teachers now is beyond me), but it wasn’t so long ago that West Warwick was considered the state’s basket case. Our new governor can ask 100 people what’s the matter, and for 90 of them, he’ll get the same answer.

But lurking under most of these issues is one big issue: the relationship between the state and the cities and towns. Our governments exist to provide a set of services we all need. The strange thing is how we think that having governments constantly at odds with each other is the most efficient way to deliver those services.

Take education, for example. The state sets requirements and standards, and even some curricula. It provides some of the money, too, though much less than it used to. But towns hire the teachers and run the schools. There is only one service here, provided by two different governments. So how can we expect the service to be provided efficiently if the governments are always skirmishing with each other about whose responsibility is what?

Most other services are shared in the same way: roads, public safety, public health, planning and much more are all provided partly by the state and partly by the city or town you live in, and for most of them there are very similar conflicts – which ones are the state roads, how many state requirements are on the police force or the water supply.

The state has all the power in the relationship, but it hasn’t always wielded it to our advantage. State tax cuts which benefited a small number of (wealthy) people have resulted in hikes in property taxes, which hurt a large number of the rest of us. But when you go talk to legislators, they always sound like the aggrieved party. I heard the chair of the Senate Finance Committee say last year that there was no evidence that increasing state aid reduces property taxes. But the reason there’s no such evidence is that no one has tried it. The state might claim state aid went up during the last decade, but the claim requires you to redefine the accounting to make it look that way. And over the past two years, even the pretense is gone, and state aid has plummeted.

It would be foolish to imagine that all the offense is on the state’s side. As we see in Central Falls, local governments are quite capable of making a big mess, too. But again, would the mayor have made the bad decisions he made without seeing the state as a separate party able to bail him out, as they’d bailed out the Central Falls school system almost two decades ago?

What we need in Rhode Island is an understanding that there is one set of services and must be just one system to deliver them. This doesn’t mean doing away with towns, but it does mean recognizing that cooperation, not conflict, is the best way forward. It also means that the forms of cooperation have to become part of the government, since a “system” that depends on the good will of this mayor or that governor isn’t a system at all.

This is a big challenge, but it’s the central one facing our governments. •

(Photo credit: Ephram Bromberg/Light Publications)

7 thoughts on “Dear Mr. Chafee: How to avoid another Central Falls

  1. I have to take issue one of the fundamental points here – namely that governments exist to provide services to the people. What government anywhere has ever been constituted for provide a service? Did the states form for the purpose of organizing garbage collection or even public education? Of course not. Most US states had been in existence for a century before they even bothered to consider public education. There is only reason for a political system to exist and that is to manage interest competition. Our form of government is inefficient precisely because it is accessible to so many competing interests. By contrast, the more efficient and centralized a system is, the fewer interests it is likely to be considering. For us to lose that accessibility for the sake of a marginal increase in efficiency, to me would be the utmost tragedy.

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