Can We Afford to Do Everything?

Under Justin’s post “Because They’re Better than You” about the Chief Justice’s nifty office renovation, commenter EMT points out that

… part of the cost was due to the historic status of the building.

Respectfully, regretfully, is it possible that we can’t afford to keep or maintain historic buildings?
The renovation of Justice Williams’ office highlights an unfortunate tendency when someone else’s dollars are being spent. In the public sphere, when tax dollars are involved, the expenditure of certain budget dollars somehow doesn’t count.

– It’s a historic building so we had to overspend.
– We opened that new school/police station/fire station. That’s why our budget went up that million dollars year over year. (Hello, Cranston.)

And the reaction too often is, “OOOH, okay.” It’s a one time expenditure that didn’t go to salaries, benefits or supplies. The money to pay for it will come off the One Time Expenditure Money Tree.
Except, of course, that it doesn’t. This is not to question the necessity of projects such as schools and public safety buildings. But in actuality, there is no money tree. However necessary the expenditure, additional tax dollars must be collected to cover this expenditure, whether it be up front or as a bond. (Bonds count as spending, too!)
The way it works in real life is that if an extraordinary expenditure comes up, either another item of an equal amount is cut from the budget or the extraordinary expenditure is not made. In the public sphere, there’s a third option: hand the bill to someone else.
Case in point. The state has issued an RFP for the restoration of the exterior of the Statehouse Dome. All surfaces to be washed with a trisodium phosphate solution. Three coats of paint on some surfaces. Marble to be repointed, grouted and waterproofed. All seals checked and repaired. Et cetera. By the way, bidding contractor, the historic people will be looking over your shoulder.
We have the most beautiful capitol in the world. Design, construction, materials — seriously, it’s breath-taking. But how much is this restoration project going to cost? What will be cut from the state budget to fund it? Alternately, what has the state been spending money on that should have been set aside for this project or, even more expensively, to pay for the bond?
Some would say that it would have been wrong to save for such a project; the expenditures made were correct and should, indeed, come ahead of a historic renovation, which might be viewed as a luxury. Good, bring on the debate about priorities. The point is that there are a finite number of hard earned dollars in the kitty. And every reach-in counts.

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Edwardo
Edwardo
12 years ago

Williams is the typical RI Judge. Spent most of his working for sewer authorites, school committes etc. before landing the plum job of Chief Justice.Once watched him on C-Span as a member of a panel of Lincoln experts, He never opened his mouth. He is expert by RI standards . Buddy Cianci adheres to the principle of honor among thieves
so he pumps him up on his show.By the way did Ron Sy Pierre sell his soul to the devil to act play the role of straigt man to Cianci.

Will
Will
12 years ago

I’m very much into historic preservation, and understand that it sometimes entails spending more money than one would on a crappy, modernist building. However, I think that Justice Williams’ basic reasoning is not valid.
To put it simply, nothing was being restored or maintained. It would neither add to nor detract from the over all historic nature of the building or from the courtrooms or other spaces that the public would see. This is of his ego, by his ego, and for his ego, to loosely paraphrase a Lincoln quote.
From what I understand, a room for his personal use was created from what had previously been a vault for keeping court documents. It is a relatively small space. It has never been a public space. Did he really need $29,000 worth of mahogany bookshelves, when cherry with some dark stain would have sufficed? Does he actually need all those shelves? If he is so important, why wasn’t some underling forced to relinquish their office space for his use, since it’s apparently at such a premium there?
PS In regard to the RI State House, it is literally a one of a kind building, made out of the finest materials, such as white Georgia marble. At one time in the distant past, Rhode Island was a prosperous and thriving state, and spent what would now be the equivalent of tens and tens of million dollars to build (I’ve been told previously by someone with knowledge of the sort of thing, that to actually rebuild a duplicate of the state house, with the same materials, it was estimated it would cost at least $250,000,000 in today’s dollars.) Fortunately for us, it’s likely the only one we’ll ever need. Remember, it was built to last hundreds of years. Unfortunately, that requires upkeep.

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