PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – In a low-turnout special election, 70% of Providence voters approved the city’s massive bond proposal aimed at digging the capital city’s pension system out of “critical status.”
According to the unofficial results, 3,545 voters approved the $515 million bond, while 1,519 voters rejected it.
Only 4% of eligible voters participated.
The result is a victory for Mayor Jorge Elorza and City Council President John Igliozzi, who have been pushing for the bond as a solution to the current pension crisis.
“Just really excited about it,” Elorza said in an interview shortly after the results came in. “This is on an issue that it’s hard to get the public excited about.”
As it stands, Providence has a $1.2 billion unfunded pension liability, a gaping hole between how much the city’s investments are projected to be worth and what it will owe its current and future retirees over time.
But opponents of the bond warned it was too risky to invest so much cash and count on a return higher than the interest due, especially in a volatile market.
The voters are not the final decision-makers in whether to borrow the money. State lawmakers must authorize the bond, because it goes above the city’s allowed borrowing capacity. According to the proposed legislation, city leaders will only be able to float the bond if they can get an interest rate below 4.9%.
The R.I. House already approved the bond last week, and the matter is scheduled to go before the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday.
“I’m just excited that we’re able to move forward, and hopefully the market conditions allow us to complete the transaction,” Elorza said.
This is the second time Elorza has proposed a pension obligation bond, but this year the proposal included asking voters for their opinion. The voter referendum was added to the plan in an effort to convince state legislators to approve the proposal.
“Getting voter approval for something like this isn’t technically required,” Elorza said when asked about the low turnout. “But we wanted to get some voice from the public. We heard from a lot of legislators that they were interested in hearing that Providence voters approved it.”
He also acknowledged that more voters would have weighed in if the question had been asked during a regular election.
“We had considered, should we just wait until November,” Elorza said. “But no one knows what the interest rate environment is going to be then, and there’s a possibility that we would’ve missed that window of opportunity. As it turns out, we might still.”
It’s not clear if interest rates and market conditions will allow the Elorza administration to borrow the money before he leaves office, which could punt the final decision to the next mayor and City Council, set to be elected this fall.
The legislation being considered by the General Assembly authorizes the borrowing for five years.