PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence voters will get a chance on Tuesday to weigh in on whether the city should borrow more than half a billion dollars to deposit into the underfunded pension system.
Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Voters who requested mail ballots and haven’t returned them yet must drop them off by the time the polls close.)
There is just one question on the ballot: “Shall the City of Providence finance a contribution towards the unfunded pension liability of the Employee Retirement System of the City of Providence by issuance of general obligation bonds in a principal amount not to exceed $515,000,000?”
The proposal was put forth by Mayor Jorge Elorza and City Council leaders after a working group convened last year deemed it the best option to address the more than $1 billion unfunded liability in the pension system.
City leaders argue doing nothing would cause the annual payment into the pension system from the city — already $100 million this year — to balloon over time, potentially leading to higher taxes, cuts to services or even bankruptcy in the future.
Nearly 124,000 Providence residents are eligible to vote in Tuesday’s election, but special elections typically garner low turnout. Last year’s statewide bond referendum in March — also a special election — saw roughly 10,000 Providence voters take part.
In the pension bond election thus far, roughly 400 Providence residents voted early at City Hall, while more than 300 mail ballots had been returned as of late Monday afternoon.
Nineteen polling places will be open Tuesday, and they may be different from where residents usually vote. Voters can enter their address on vote.ri.gov to find out where their polling place will be.
Voters are not the final decision-makers in whether to borrow the cash. The bond has to be authorized by the General Assembly, since it’s above Providence’s allowed borrowing capacity. The R.I. House already passed enabling legislation last week, and the Senate is expected to follow.
Even then, the city is not required to borrow the money just because voters and lawmakers approve. City financial advisors will analyze the interest rates and market conditions, and the final decision will be made by the mayor and City Council.
It’s possible conditions will not be favorable to borrow the money during Elorza’s administration, which ends in January. In that case, the new mayor and City Council would be making the final decision.
All three Providence mayoral candidates have said they plan to vote in favor of the bond on Tuesday.
R.I Treasurer Seth Magaziner also plans to vote in favor of the bond, his office said last week, after he was initially undecided.
Magaziner had recommended lawmakers include a series of safeguards in their final bill. The version that came out of the House included some of his recommendations, including a slight decrease in the maximum interest rate, but did not include any requirement that the city stagger the borrowing.
“The Treasurer appreciates that several of his recommendations to decrease the risk of the pension obligation bond proposal were included in the final version of the legislation and is disappointed that others were not incorporated,” spokesperson Ben Smith said in an email. “As a Providence voter, Treasurer Magaziner plans to vote in favor of the proposal, with some reservations, and will make his office available to assist the City with implementation of the proposal if it should be approved.”
A union-backed group called the Committee to Save Providence has been filling social media feeds in recent days with advertisements in favor of the bond question. The group has also sent out mailers.
On the other side, Republican National Committeeman Steven Frias sent out his own mailers slamming the plan as too risky.
“I understand the city of Providence has problems with its pension, but adding half a billion dollars worth of debt to that pension problem is just double the trouble,” Frias said during this past weekend’s edition of Newsmakers.
Even many of the plan’s supporters agree that pension obligation bonds are inherently risky, but point to a number of safeguards in the proposal including a maximum interest rate of 4.9% and the option to refinance the loan after 10 years if interest rates improve.
Providence’s pension fund currently assumes a 7% annual rate-of-return over time.
“There is risk,” said Michael DiBiase, the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council. “But the city of Providence has one of the worst-funded pensions in the country. And they don’t really have any way to influence that unfunded liability.”