A voters’ guide to the City Council race in Ward 2

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The race to replace outgoing Providence City Councilman Sam Zurier is on.

Three Democrats – Helen Anthony, Ryan Holt and Mark Feinstein – are seeking to represent Ward 2, the East Side district that includes the College Hill, Wayland and Blackstone neighborhoods.

With no other candidates running in the general election, the seat will effectively be decided during the Sept. 12 primary.

So where do the candidates stand on some of Providence’s key issues? Eyewitness News asked them to answer 10 questions.

1. Why should you be elected to the City Council?

Anthony: I should be elected to City Council because I have city governance experience and I know how to get things done on a divisive council. In Columbia, Missouri, I worked across the aisle to develop a comprehensive plan for the city’s growth and to improve the city’s infrastructure. My strength is consensus building and relationships and I intend to use my skills to bring stakeholders together to solve the urgent issues facing our city.

Holt: Quite simply – I know the issues and know how to work with leaders City-wide for meaningful change.  I am the only candidate in this race who was born and raised in Providence.  I have the energy and expertise to effectively advocate for the East Side to build a stronger City for all of us. As an attorney who works with businesses and with leaders in and around city and state government, I am uniquely able to hit the ground running on day one.  I love Providence – it is my home.  My wife Lilia and I chose to build our lives here.  We want to build this City into a destination for more people to be able to do the same.

Further, I’ve heard from many people who are frightened and/or angered by what’s happening in Washington.  I agree.  It is in these local races where the next wave of leaders is formed.  We need more young people in public office – people who will be future leaders statewide and nationally.  If elected, I’d join that wave.

Feinstein: I believe I should be elected council member for ward 2 because of my decades in the private sector as a businessman where I became used to managing a budget, running an organization, and making tough decisions under pressure. Furthermore, I have lived in our ward for 28 years and can relate to the issues that concern the residents of our ward.

2. What is one City Council committee you’d like to sit on and why?

Holt: Education.  I am a proud Classical graduate and the only candidate in this race with ties to Providence Public Schools. I will be a champion for improving our public schools.  A strong system is vital to the success of our City.  A stronger system would attract new residents and retain current residents while also helping us attract new businesses to the City.  We have talented teachers and a strong Superintendent who can improve the system with the right political and financial support.  There are some very positive things happening in our schools now – a dual language immersion program in one of our elementary schools and a coding program for high schoolers – we should work to expand these types of programs as one way to improve the system.

We should also utilize Providence’s world-class colleges and universities to partner more closely with our public schools.  We can do so by working with them to offer training for teachers, additional opportunities for students to earn credits, access and exposure to higher learning and the college admissions process, and enhancing a preferred-applicant status for graduates of Providence Public Schools.

Feinstein: I would like to serve on the council’s finance committee as I feel I will be most effective there thanks to my business experience. If given the opportunity I would be an advocate for sensible financial solutions for our ward and would make sure that the council’s agenda always kept the needs of local businesses in mind.

Anthony: I would like to sit on the Ordinance Committee.  As a land use attorney with 4 years’ experience on Planning and Zoning in Columbia and 1½ years on the Providence Zoning Board of Appeals, I understand the importance of well drafted ordinances that can be implemented and enforced and I’d like to advocate for ordinances that strengthen and support our City.

3. Do you think Providence should have at-large City Council seats?

Feinstein: I believe that the council having at-large seats is something that should be seriously considered. Someone that is working on behalf of the entire city would be a big positive for our ward and would help foster a cohesiveness between the micro and the macro of Providence issues.

Anthony: I do think Providence should have at-large City Council seats.  It’s hard to get things done on City Council when there are 15 councilors who need to prioritize the needs of the wards they represent. 

Holt: I would be open to considering this option.

4. A developer has proposed building a 46-story tower along Dyer Street on the former I-195 land. Would you support a zoning change that would allow that project or a similar one to move forward?

Anthony: No, I would not support the Fane Tower or a similar project to move forward along Dyer Street on the former I-195 land.  There are zoning regulations that govern the development of the I-195 land and those regulations should be enforced.  The CPC and Ordinance Committee made the right recommendations to deny the project.

Holt: No. I am encouraged to see a proposal for such an ambitious development in Providence – I want to see more of that.  However, (1) the financing of the deal does not make sense as this particular developer needs an exorbitant amount of government subsidies just to make a modest return; (2) the developer also has a questionable track record; (3) the location is not right for a development of this size; (4) I would also prefer to see more mixed-use development – more office space and community development to attract more businesses to the City.

I want Providence to continue to grow – it has to.  But we need smart growth – growth with an eye to preserving the history and beauty of our City.  Development must not be shortsighted and based off of short-term goals, but instead must always be with the long term in mind.

Feinstein: I am very excited that Providence is attracting interest from out of state developers. We should definitely be as helpful as we can to the developers of the Dyer Street property as well as others who are interested in building and investing in Providence. I believe it is paramount that we be consistent with our policies and respectful of a fair and uniform process, which is why I am not in favor of changing the zoning of the I195 land for a 46 story tower.

5. Providence’s unfunded pension liability is approaching $1 billion and the system was only 25% funded as of June 30, 2017. What steps would you support for stabilizing the pension system?

Holt: Closing this gap is a long-term goal, not a short term one.  Those who promise short term solutions are advocating for inflicting unnecessary pain on taxpayers, workers, and pensioners.  A few years ago, Mayor Tavares and city and union leaders worked hard, made some difficult choices, and reformed the pension system.  While the system is still underfunded, with appropriate growth in the City and in the Market, the gap will close, and the payment should remain a consistent portion of the annual budget.  Last year, we actually took more in than we paid out.  However, we cannot rest on that.  We need to keep an eye on our spending and be sure to continue growing our tax base.  We should also review the fees being charged, our assumed return, and investment options to be sure our fund is getting the best deal possible.  In the event we fall off track again, we need to be sure to bring all parties to the table.  We need buy in from all stakeholders instead of pulling the blanket out from underneath people whose retirement relies on pensions they’ve earned.

Feinstein: Our budget has very little “wiggle” room and will only get tighter with time. The city has done many things to the expense side and there is not much else to balance those out except by increasing revenues. Our property taxes are already high and I will be an advocate to keep rates where they are. So what we need to do is increase our tax base by helping companies grow here in Providence, attracting new businesses, and encourage new housing. This will be the sensible way to grow our tax base.

Anthony: I would recommend that City Council use all the tools recommended in the April 12, 2018 of the City Council Pension Working Group.  It’s an urgent issue that will require the involvement of all stakeholders. 

6. Mayor Elorza has been advocating for the state to approve legislation that would allow Providence to generate more revenue from the city’s water supply. Would you support a sale or lease deal for the water system?

Feinstein: Our unfunded pension liability is a large sword hanging over the city’s neck. We need to consider any and all potential ways to get us in better financial health. The water supply is owned by the rate-payers and any changes would need the approval of the puc. At this time I don’t think “Selling” the water supply would net us much money after you factor in the increased rates people would need to pay to fund the acquisition.

Anthony: I do not support the privatization of the Providence Water Supply Board, but I do think we need to look at ways to recognize some rate of return on our investment.  This is the only City asset from which the City can recognize a significant sum of money and we need to explore all options to get our unfunded pension liability out of critical status.

Holt: As of right now, no.  First, we do not know if the City actually owns the asset, or whether it is rate-payers, or some combination.  Second, we do not know the value of the asset.  Third, we have to protect rate-payers from a major rise in their water bills – such a transaction would inevitably raise rates – we’d need a solid, permanent cap on that.  Fourth, we have to make it clear that a private entity could never purchase or lease the system – as written, the legislation does not do that.  Look at Flint, look at countries in Latin America – private entities controlling water systems, the most basic and vital of resources, lead to disaster.  If the above items were addressed, I would consider the lease option, but not the sale.

7. Providence’s teachers have been working without a contract since Aug. 31, 2017. Mayor Elorza has said he wants the next agreement to be “transformational.” What does a transformational contract mean to you?

Anthony: While I do not know the specifics of the Providence teachers’ contracts, it would appear that the Mayor would like to make some fundamental changes that will transform the way our students are taught.  I would hope these changes are innovative and that the result will be that our children receive the quality education they deserve and the teachers are valued and treated fairly.

Holt: Providence teachers need a contract. I like the Mayor, but am unsure what is meant by “transformational”.  I’d like there to be a contract that works for everyone – the teachers, the City, and most importantly the children of Providence.  We have many talented and dedicated teachers in our City – let’s give them a contract that gives them the resources, training, and support they deserve.

Feinstein: Any contract that would be considered between the city and the teacher’s union would have to be one that took into account the welfare and needs of our students first and foremost. Education is integral to the success of any community and I would support any agreement that ensured that our best teachers are in the classroom with the resources they need. Furthermore, it’s important that we have teacher evaluations to make sure of this and that we work hard to curb the high teacher absenteeism that has been growing as of late.

8. The majority of major development projects in Providence in recent years have received a tax-stabilization agreement from the city. Mayor Elorza and Council President Salvatore are both advocating for a more standardized TSA process rather having one-off agreements that vary depending on the project. How should the city handle TSAs in the future?

Holt: TSAs are vital to the continued growth and development of Providence.  Generally, I favor a more standardized TSA process provided that it is measurable and holds all parties accountable for performance – especially for First Source and apprenticeship matters.  I am encouraged that Council President Salvatore and the Mayor are advocating for this.  Such legislation should also allow the City and a particular applicant flexibility in the event a particular project falls outside the scope of what will be contemplated in the Ordinance.

Feinstein: Tax stabilization agreements are one of our most powerful “tools” to attract much needed development to our city. TSA ‘s incentivizes development with little risk to the existing tax base, potentially grows the future tax base, and does not require direct expenditures. Ensuring a fair, transparent, and predictable process will help to maximize the potential benefits that tax stabilization offers. I agree with the Mayor, the council’s president, as well as the 2014 report of the Task Force on Economic Development that the city should have specific criteria that must be met by projects to qualify for consideration. All projects that meet this criteria should qualify for consideration and no special terms or arrangements should be given to anyone.

Anthony: I would support a standardized TSA process.  We can’t turn the economy around unless we have a predictable, consistent process by which developers can develop their projects in the City. 

9. What is one piece of legislation you would like to see the General Assembly approve to help Providence?

Feinstein: One thing that I hear over and over from people in our ward is the horrible conditions of our roads. I am eager to propose legislation that would require utilities that open up our roads to restore them curb to curb once they are finished as opposed to just patching up individual spots. I think this would be a big first step towards having roads that we are proud to drive over and call our own.

Anthony: I would like the General Assembly to pass whatever legislation is necessary to allow Providence to recognize some rate of return on the water that it sells to other municipalities.  The unfunded pension liability is the most urgent issue facing the City and we will need the General Assembly’s help to solve the problem. 

Holt: I would like to see the school funding formula revamped to factor in the unique issues a district like Providence faces. As of now, the formula is skewed to favor suburban, wealthy districts. That must change.

10. Name one thing Mayor Elorza has gotten right and one thing he’s gotten wrong since he became mayor in 2015.

Anthony: I was particularly proud of Mayor Elorza for declaring that Providence is a Sanctuary City that welcomes all immigrants.  Diversity is what makes Providence strong and I appreciate his leadership on this issue.   

Holt: Right- PVD Fest (and the overall push towards large, fun, culture, music, and food-oriented family-friendly outdoor activities).  Bringing folks from all corners of Providence (and beyond) Downtown together to enjoy our great restaurants, bars, and local musical and cultural talents is a major win for our City, I’d love to see it happen more often if possible.

Wrong – Allowing the Teachers’ contract to lapse.

Feinstein: It is commendable that Mayor Elorza has been able to keep our tax rates stable during his tenure but I think his initiative of installing parking meters across our ward has caused more headaches than savings.

Continue the discussion on Facebook

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

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