PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – In one of their final showdowns before next week’s primary, the three Democratic candidates for mayor of Providence discussed the city’s poorly funded pension system, its struggling schools and the proposed 46-story Hope Point Tower during a debate Tuesday evening.
Incumbent Mayor Jorge Elorza and Democratic challengers Robert DeRobbio and Kobi Dennis were joined at the forum by Dianne “Dee Dee” Witman, an independent candidate who says she has loaned her nascent campaign $500,000 to show she can compete with whomever wins the Sept. 12 primary.
The debate, held at the University of Rhode Island’s Providence campus, was sponsored by the Providence League of Women Voters and URI’s Master’s of Public Administration program. Scott MacKay, a political analyst for Rhode Island Public Radio and former reporter for The Providence Journal, moderated the forum.
Elorza, who is running for a second four-year term as mayor, called it the “privilege and honor of a lifetime” to lead Rhode Island’s capital city while touting his efforts to hold the line on tax rates, reduce violent crime and improve city services. Under his watch, he said, Providence is investing in infrastructure and planning to spend $400 million to make repairs to the city’s crumbling school buildings.
DeRobbio, a retired school administrator who turned 73 Monday, said he’s running because Providence has become a “tale of two cities,” the one the mayor often brags about and what he considers a more realistic view that includes downtown buildings being sold at a discount and low-performing schools. He pledged to bring “a fair and comparable education to all students.”
Dennis, a longtime community advocate, said his decision to enter the race more than 300 days ago has helped him learn what voters are really talking about in neighborhoods across the city. He questioned the transparency of the Elorza administration while vowing to be more inclusive of all residents if he’s elected.
Appearing in her first candidate forum of the summer, Witman said Providence needs a mayor “who understands City Hall, but isn’t jaded.” She criticized the Elorza administration for being “not smart, creative nor transparent” over the last four years while pledging to rid the city of its school-zone speed cameras and to hire a fire chief for the first time in more than three years.
Jeffrey Lemire, another independent candidate, was in attendance for Tuesday’s debate, but declined to participate.
When asked how they’ll fix the pension system – which was 25% funded, with only $348 million in assets available to cover $1.35 billion in promised retirement benefits, as of last year – Elorza said his plan is to monetize Providence’s water supply and use any proceeds from a transaction to help improve the fund’s health.
Witman said she wants to call in experts to help solve the problem, but suggested she would be open to eliminating pensions for new hires. DeRobbio said all revenue Providence earns that exceeds the amount it budgets each year – like fines from speed cameras, for example – should be deposited into the pension fund. Dennis said he would like to explore the city’s ability to work with other Rhode Island communities to address pensions.
All three of Elorza’s opponents said they do not support the mayor’s efforts to monetize the water system. Repeating a talking point he uses regularly, Elorza called on his challengers to offer a solution of their own instead of dismissing his idea.
With teachers beginning the school year Tuesday in work-to-rule mode because they have been working under an expired contract for more than a year, DeRobbio said Elorza should have started negotiating a deal long before the agreement ended on Aug. 31, 2017.
Dennis said parents and children he talked to Tuesday were concerned that teachers started the year by refusing to do more than their contract requires, but pinned the blame on the mayor. He said he would bring people together to find a solution. Witman said the ongoing dispute “shows a lack of leadership and complete disregard for teachers.” Elorza said he’d be willing to support pay increases for teachers if he thought it would improve outcomes, but “we can’t be naive to expect that something miraculous will happen.”
All three of Elorza’s challengers also criticized him for his handling of a U.S. Department of Justice probe into the city’s English learner programs. The city agreed to a settlement last month that will overhaul the way English learners are taught, but the agreement could cost millions of dollars, according to Superintendent Chris Maher. Elorza pinned part of the blame on the state for refusing to dedicate funding for English learners in the state budget until last year.
With the City Council set to meet this week to consider a zoning change that would allow a New York developer to build a nearly 600-foot tall skyscraper along Dyer Street, only Elorza said he is open to the height proposal. But the mayor also said he has concerns about the design of the tower. DeRobbio said he’d like to see it built somewhere else in the city.
Asked about whether the city’s nonprofit colleges and hospitals are paying their fair share to the city, Dennis said he wants to look at “services in lieu of taxes” that the institutions can provide rather than seeking more tax revenue. Elorza said he supports legislation that would allow Providence to collect taxes from certain properties owned by the nonprofits, like parking lots or commercial buildings. DeRobbio and Witman said the city should form closer relationships with the colleges and hospitals.
On other issues, all the candidates said they oppose a planned liquefied natural gas facility off of Allens Avenue. They all said Providence police should collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when it comes violent criminals who are in the country illegally, but suggested that local law enforcement should not be working as deportation officers.
Dennis was the only candidate to say he would support a rent control ordinance, while the other candidate would only say they support affordable housing.
As they head into the final week of the primary campaign, Elorza, DeRobbio and Dennis are set to square off one final time at a forum hosted by the West Broadway Neighborhood Association on Sept. 11.
The winner will take on Witman and Lemire in the general election.