1/26/11

The State's Central Falls Dilemma

What is going to become of Central Falls? The square mile mini-city, home to some 19,000 (not counting the prisoners at the Wyatt Detention Facility) is broke to the tune of $2.1 million for the current fiscal year, and is under the control of a state receiver. Its public employee pension and healthcare funds are woefully under-funded: the city faces about $48 million in future obligations for pensions and some $32 million for health insurance costs. Its high school is under state control with many students unable to graduate because they haven’t received enough class time or bunk class on a regular basis. The receiver, retired state Judge Mark Pfeiffer, has jacked up property taxes on a working class population that can ill afford any more taxes than they already struggle to pay. The city faces annual budget deficits in the order of $5 million for the next five years, monies that will have to come largely from the state.

Despite the city’s motto (which still appears on its official website) “A City with a Bright Future,” Central Falls doesn’t have a future. It is, in other words, finished as an independent municipality. The city just does not have the means to pay its present and future financial obligations. There is nothing on the horizon to improve the situation. So the question is, what can the state do with it? Judge Pfeiffer, in recognition of this reality, has recommended that the city merge with next-door Pawtucket, which shares its urban character. Pawtucket, however, is in tough financial shape itself and is being watched closely by the municipal bond community regarding its own finances. Judge Pfeiffer’s Hail Mary pass was dead on arrival.

No other contiguous community – those being Cumberland and Lincoln – wants to take Central Fall under its wing. Back in 1895, as RI historian Patrick Conley reminds us, Central Falls was created in a deliberate political move to separate its then immigrant population from the farmers of nearby Albion. Lincoln and Cumberland are prosperous communities with a rural, suburban character. They have next to nothing in common with Central Falls except proximity. Central Falls, if you’ve been through it anytime in the last thirty years, is so Latino, based on its population, that it looks like no other community in the Ocean State.

The only lasting solution for Central Falls, and perhaps some other municipalities around the state with big financial problems of their own (North Providence, Johnston, the aforementioned Pawtucket) is to be merged into a larger regional entity. What would that entity be and what might it look like? My suggestion is for Rhode Island to transition its balkanized 39 cities and towns into a county government system. We have five counties in our state – Providence, Kent, Bristol, Washington and Newport – and all were established before the Declaration of Independence in 1776. None of them possess any governmental functions at all.

Elsewhere in the U.S., county government is a popular and time-honored alternative. County governments provide all government services for their citizens under a consolidated, county-structured government. By way of comparison, take Duval County in northeastern Florida, home to Jacksonville. Duval County has one seat of government, one mayor and council, one sheriff and fire departments, etc. None of the beach towns or what’s known as the westside area has their own police and fire departments. There is one tax collector’s office, one school department, and one clerk of courts. All this for a county with about a million residents, pretty much like Rhode Island.

Imagine the five counties of our state with a similar county government structure. Struggling places like Pawtucket and Central Falls would be part of Providence County, a much larger and more viable entity.

When we speak of regionalization of services or consolidation of services here in Rhode Island, what we really should be focusing on is county government. Warwick sharing certain services with Cranston, for example, however achievable, is still a band-aid to the bigger problem: we have 39 cities and towns with inefficient, money wasting duplication and redundancy in place for such a small place.

The financial crisis in Central Falls has been likened to the canary in the mine shaft. State leaders will not solve our financial problems by taking small steps or letting parochial, don’t mess with the status quo type of views prevail, but by taking bold action to transform our state. They should be studying and planning an orderly transition to county governments.