Saving Providence, Again

There are, clearly, rewards for bold, blunt leadership in times of crisis.

Last year, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras declared a "category 5 hurricane" on the city's books and was able to wrangle significant savings from municipal unions and push through a tax hike.

Treasurer Gina Raimondo, meanwhile, made a very methodical case for an unsustainable state pension system and won an overhaul that landed her breathless national press.

But what happens when, as Taveras declared at his press conference yesterday, "the hurricane has not yet passed?"

Taveras is clearly banking on a reprise of last year's act to carry him though the new crisis.

Yesterday, he dangled the possibility of bankruptcy and argued that retired city employees will have to give up some of their benefits and non-profits like Brown University will have to contribute more to city coffers if Providence is to pull back from the precipice.

The warning won him blaring headlines in the Providence Journal and put him in heavy rotation on television and radio. And with the state's top leadership behind him - Governor Chafee voiced support through his spokeswoman and Speaker of the House Gordon Fox, a Providence Democrat, was at his press conference - he has a good chance to exert his will again.

But this appears, in some respects, a tougher nut to crack. Cutting retiree benefits could prove legally challenging; a court decision on Monday blocking the city's attempt to push retirees from a city-paid medical plan into Medicare points to the difficulty. And the mayor does not have the same leverage over Brown and the city's hospitals that he does over municipal unions (though the prospect of a state law forcing higher payments makes for a nice cudgel).

Implicit in his first declaration of a hurricane, moreover, was a critique of his predecessor, David Cicilline (though Taveras was careful not to mention the name of a man who now serves as one-quarter of Rhode Island's tiny Congressional delegation). And while the "blame Cicilline" narrative will still have plenty of legs - boosted, in no small part, by Cicilline's opponents in the Congressional race - the longer Taveras is on the job, the more he will own the fiscal problems he inherited.

Just ask President Obama.

This shouldn't be overdone - it is still relatively early in the Taveras administration and the mayor's polling numbers suggest a reservoir of good will among the public (or as close as a pol can get to such a thing during a down economy). And calling out the city's problem - in a big, public way - last year was key to creating those approval ratings and getting things done.

It's smart to do it again.

But "saving Providence" - a phrase the administration has tossed around quite a bit these last couple of days - could prove challenging this time around. Even more challenging, perhaps, than last time.



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