By STEVEN FRIAS Voters usually focus on who is running for office. But sometimes there are questions on the ballot, which, if approved by the voters, will have a more lasting impact on government than who we elect. This year, Cranston will be voting on
Voters usually focus on who is running for office. But sometimes there are questions on the ballot, which, if approved by the voters, will have a more lasting impact on government than who we elect.
This year, Cranston will be voting on four amendments to the Cranston City Charter. The City Charter is essentially Cranston’s local constitution. Listed on the ballot as Questions 8 through 11, these four charter amendments will: (1) prohibit gerrymandering; (2) expand the mayor’s veto power; (3) require the maintenance of a Rainy-Day Fund; and (4) set a three percent cap on annual property tax increases. A vote for these charter amendments is a vote to continue fiscal stability and support clean government.
The charter amendment in Question 8, entitled “Ward Redistricting,” prohibits gerrymandering in the redrawing of ward boundaries. Most Cranston city council members and school committee members are elected by ward. After the census, the city must establish new ward boundaries. This charter amendment prohibits ward boundaries from being drawn for the purpose of favoring or discriminating against an incumbent, a candidate or a political party. Currently, approximately a dozen states prohibit gerrymandering to favor incumbents or political parties. To further prevent gerrymandering, the amendment also includes language related to respecting local neighborhoods and having wards being divided by major roads and natural features to the extent possible. It is inherently unethical for elected officials to design ward boundary lines in way to help themselves stay in office. This amendment is designed to stop this unethical conduct from occurring.
The charter amendment in Question 9, entitled “Mayor’s Line Item Veto,” expands the mayor’s veto authority to address certain types of budget gimmicks. The mayor is now permitted to veto an increase in a line item in the budget. However, the mayor cannot veto decreases in a line item in the budget. When reductions in budget line items are either unrealistic or imprudent, they are gimmicks which create a structural budget deficit. For example, city councils in 2008-2010 decreased budgets by including union concessions that could not be achieved and by reducing the amount of money contributed to the pension fund, but the mayor could not veto these reductions. To help avoid structural budget deficits, the mayor needs a line-item veto for any change in the budget. Governors in about forty-four other states as well as the mayor of Warwick have a comprehensive line-item veto. This amendment ensures the mayor of Cranston has one as well.
The charter amendment in Question 10, entitled “Rainy Day Fund (Undesignated Fund Balance),” requires the city to maintain a Rainy-Day Fund, which could not go below five percent of the city’s annual budget except for an emergency. Credit rating agencies generally recommend that municipalities maintain a reserve equal to at least five percent of the city’s operating budget. Furthermore, Cranston’s bond advisor has indicated that the “establishment of a fund balance policy is both prudent and positively viewed by the rating agencies.” A strong Rainy-Day Fund is essential for a municipality to maintain a good credit rating and to withstand emergencies. In fact, Cranston entered the worst fiscal crisis in history and was given a junk bond credit rating after city officials completely spent the Cranston’s Rainy-Day Fund from 1999 to 2001. In contrast, since fiscal year 2012, Cranston has maintained a Rainy-Day Fund equal to at least five percent of the city’s operating budget and enjoyed a strong credit rating. This amendment is designed to prevent a return of the fiscal policies that nearly bankrupted Cranston in the past.
The charter amendment in Question 11, entitled “Property Tax Cap Levy,” prevents annual increases in the property tax levy greater than three percent, except under limited circumstances. The amendment is modeled on an existing state law. Under state law, a municipality cannot annually increase its property tax levy by more than four percent without the approval of four-fifths of the city council and at least one of four unusual conditions occurring such as a loss in total state aid or an emergency. This amendment requires that at least one of the four conditions set forth in state law occurs before property taxes can increase above three percent. Therefore, this amendment provides more protection to taxpayers than current state law. A three percent cap on property tax increases is a reasonable for a community like Cranston. For example, in neighboring Massachusetts, there is a 2.5 percent cap on annual property tax increases. Furthermore, since 1913, the average annual rate of inflation has been approximately three percent, and for the last three decades, the average annual rate of inflation has been less than three percent. Also, in the past, Cranston taxpayers endured significant annual property tax increases, such as a nearly 25 percent property tax increase in fiscal year 2003. In contrast, over the past decade, Cranston had four property tax increases, but none of these property tax increases exceeded three percent. As a result, the property tax burden on Cranston residents has increased slower than the rate of inflation in recent years. This amendment aims to protect taxpayers from large tax increases.
Support for these four charter amendments is not a partisan issue. In fact, these amendments garnered broad bipartisan support on the Charter Review Commission, and the City Council. Regardless of who you will be voting for at the local level, vote for these amendments to our local charter.
Over the past decade, Cranston taxpayers have experienced an era of fiscal stability not seen since the 1980s. This stability is the result, in part, of Mayor Allan Fung’s fiscal policies such as maintaining a robust Rainy-Day Fund, and controlling spending so that tax increases do not exceed the rate of inflation. By approving these charter amendments, Cranston may be able to continue to enjoy the current era of fiscal stability.
Steven Frias is Rhode Island’s Republican National Committeeman, a historian, recipient of The Coolidge Prize for Journalism, and Chairman of the Cranston Charter Review Commission.