A year after warning that Providence might be forced into municipal bankruptcy, Mayor Angel Taveras said Tuesday that Rhode Island’s capital has weathered the worst of its fiscal problems but that its recovery is taking hold slowly and urgent action is needed to boost its economy.
In a largely hopeful state of the city address at City Hall, the first-term Democrat said Providence is moving “from peril to recovery” after facing a $110 million deficit and what he had earlier dubbed a Category 5 fiscal hurricane.
“We have survived the worst of our fiscal storm, but we must remain vigilant,” Taveras said. “As with the national recovery, Providence’s recovery is slow. But we are headed in the right direction and there are clear signs of hope on the horizon.”
A year ago, Taveras — a possible candidate for governor in 2014 — used his address as a warning bell on the state of the city’s finances, painting a bleak picture of a cash-strapped city he said was “staring into a black hole.” At the time, he was trying to extract more in voluntary payments from Providence’s tax-exempt institutions and win concessions from retirees on pension changes he insisted were necessary to stave off bankruptcy.
On Tuesday, the mayor described the fruits of that work: He reached an agreement with Brown University for $31.5 million in additional payments over 11 years, got the city’s three major health care institutions to contribute to city coffers for the first time and reached settlements with police and fire unions and retirees to freeze pension cost-of-living increases and make other cost-saving health benefits changes.
The city whittled its operating deficit down to $11.4 million by the end of the last fiscal year — depleting its reserve fund along the way — and is expected to end this year with a balanced budget. But Taveras said the city must replenish those reserves and work to restore credit ratings that fell amid the fiscal crisis.
Taveras said the city must act “with all urgency” to build its economy and improve its schools. While more Providence residents are employed than at any time since 2008, he called the unemployment rate — 10.9 percent, not seasonally adjusted — unacceptably high. And he urged Providence to build on its assets, including its port, its arts community and the parcel of land on the edge of downtown known as the Knowledge District, which city and state officials hope to develop into a high-tech life sciences hub.
Taveras said he plans to release a comprehensive economic development plan next month.
In addressing the issue of public safety, the mayor said Providence has experienced far too much gun violence and called for “reasonable, common-sense” gun control legislation that would put Rhode Island in line with neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut. Both have tighter restrictions on gun ownership.
A member of the national coalition Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Taveras said he has reached out to every mayor and municipal leader in the state.
“As the leaders of our state’s cities and towns,” he said, “we will be most effective if we coordinate our local efforts and speak with one voice at the Statehouse and in Washington, D.C.”