En Route to Trouble: The I-195 Redevelopment Act of 2011
One larger observation before jumping in. You know, here we are, at the point that we can see the day, in the near future, when public pension checks will bounce. Yet rather than focus on what is the state’s biggest crisis in many decades (arguably of the last century or more), Senate Majority Leader Dominick J. Ruggerio is selfishly making a Napoleonic grab on some land in Providence. At least, when the pension checks do bounce and those that he works for (in every sense of the word) demand to know what he did to prevent the catastrophe hitting their retired ranks, he’ll be able to answer to them with a clear conscience …
Now that a Senate Committee (not the full Senate, contrary to the ProJo headline) has passed S0114, the bill that would beget the commission and the district that would develop and sell twenty acres of former Route 195 land, let us review once again (Andrew having taken us skeptically through it here and here) its fatal flaws.
From the jump, you knew that there was something special about this legislation because it
was kept under tight wraps until the hearing began.
Ah, yes, the hallmark of good government policy: it can stand but the barest minimum of public scrutiny. In fact, Thursday’s hearing had been postponed from earlier in the week in part because interested parties did not have sufficient time to read the fifty page bill before the hearing began.
The main flaw of the commission, however – and this is the consensus of everyone, literally every party who would not directly benefit from the bill (or is not under orders to pass it) – is that it would be all-powerful yet independent. Now, independence can be good when the purview is sufficiently narrow and (personal prejudice) pertains to the reduction of the size of government – think BRAC. This commission’s independence, however, can be categorized squarely as that of a dictator’s.
In addition to deciding on all redevelopment plans for the soon-to-be-vacant highway property, the proposed quasi-public commission would have the power to buy and sell land, borrow and lend money, invest money and negotiate tax agreements — all without state or city approvals.
When this complete lack of accountability was pointed out to the committee chair, his response was laugh out loud funny.
Committee chairman Sen. John J. Tassoni Jr. pointed out that the commission must make annual reports to the General Assembly.
Oooo, an annual report! They’ll be quivering in their wingtips!
Accountable neither to the state nor to the city: other than two parcels to be purchased by Johnson and Wales, the district would be exempt from Providence zoning and development laws, providing the state the ability to give the new owner carte blanche with regard to use of the land, not to mention building dimensions, parking, etc, etc. (Casino? Nuclear power plant? A five hundred unit residential tower with no parking?) Common Cause and many others are correctly concerned about this … little detail.
Attorney General Peter Kilmartin makes a good point: the state already has in place a perfectly good State Properties Commission. Why shouldn’t the sale of the land go through it rather than an overly powerful new commission?
One question: does anyone know why Governor Chafee’s Director of Administration, Richard Licht, is enthusiastic about this project?
… Licht said it’s “not unprecedented” for other independent state agencies to be able to buy and sell land on their own without oversight by the State Properties Committee. The Economic Development Corporation does not need such oversight, Licht said, nor does the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, except in certain cases.
Umm, these commissions also do not possess the broad powers that are proposed for the Route 195 Commission, Mr. Licht.
An editorial in yesterday’s Providence Journal sums up everyone’s reservations well.
The overriding state interest in the land is its federally mandated sale at fair-market value. A commission is not required for that. Indeed, a commission may retard both the land’s sale and its development.
Instead, the land should be sold to be developed under existing municipal authority. Let market forces guide its progress. That would be much more efficient than seven commissioners and their train of agencies, lawyers, consultants and other hangers-on. In fact, as of now the bill looks as if it is intended to create the next secure feed bag for the well-connected.