Providence: Don’t bite the hand that wants to feed you

I remember reading a provocatively headlined article over winter break stating that Brown had “reneged” on a deal with Providence to shell out some extra cash ontop of the payments in lieu of taxes it already makes. GoLocalProv obtained a copy of the letter from Providence’s mayor to Brown’s president. I found the tone of the letter striking; here is their description:

“Unfortunately, our agreement never reached the Brown Corporation for their consideration,” Taveras writes in the letter. “Instead, the Corporation approved two of your agenda items – ROTC and athletics—as well as received $34.2 million in gifts to the University. The Corporation also received news that Brown’s endowment grew to a market value of $2.5 billion. The future of Brown and Providence was never discussed or voted upon.”

Taveras said that a Dec. 15 letter from Simmons was “substantially different from our December 12 conversation and a far cry from our original agreement which provided for close to $4 million annually and valued at $39.5 million over 10 years with a view towards an additional 10 year extension.”

Near the end of the letter, Taveras said that the city must obtain $7.1 million from the tax-exempt universities and hospitals and the money expected to come from Brown is an integral part of its budget. He also made it clear that the city will take legal action to pursue the funds that were agreed to if the Corporation does not sign off.

“If that is the case, the City will pursue that revenue from Brown using alternate legal pathways,” the letter states.

Earlier this month, Taveras began not-so-subtly intimating that Providence could be the next to follow nearby Central Falls into the b-word (bankruptcy — quite the buzzword in RI nowadays).

A few weeks ago, when Providence’s Johnson and Wales University tripled their concessions to the city, the mayor spoke as if JWU was the only one who cared about the city. Try to picture him scowling up the hill at Brown while he says this.

“I am pleased to announce this new agreement with Johnson & Wales, and am grateful to the university for being a strong partner to the City of Providence,” said Mayor Taveras. “Johnson & Wales and all of our city’s major tax-exempt institutions provide great economic and cultural value to Providence. At the same time, our tax-exempts cannot thrive if our city is in continual fiscal crisis. This agreement helps to address an unsustainable structural imbalance in our city’s finances caused by the great and growing percentage of tax-exempt land in Providence.”

As a Brown student and as someone who has spent a year covering the top-brass beat for Brown’s newspaper, I can assure any reader that President Simmons and the rest of the Brown administration do care about Providence, and they do realize Brown will feel ramifications of a crippled Providence. And Brown doesn’t necessarily mind contributing money and resources to Providence, which Brown already does voluntarily.

What the people up on College Hill don’t see eye to eye on with the people down across the river is how to avoid that. Taveras needs to understand that when you court potential investors, you can’t just size them up for what they’re worth then shake them down. A more amenable approach to any investor, especially the people who run this university, would be presenting them with some sort of business plan for the city: a way for Brown to contribute more, but to see increasing returns.

To my knowledge, Taveras hasn’t coughed that up. But if he did, I’m sure his talks with Brown would go very differently. It isn’t that Brown doesn’t want to shell out a few million dollars to help save the city. It’s that they don’t want to see a few million dollars go down the toilet in the hands of a city with a record of inflating pensions and mismanaging its finances.

I miss the days when David Cicilline would talk about the city’s need to work with Brown to develop his idea of the “Knowledge District,” a run-down manufacturing sector that planners aimed to revitalize by relocating I-195 away from it to make space for high-tech ventures, like Brown’s new medical school.

That was a partnership Brown could get behind. Taveras’ vague demand for sacrifices from every imaginable constituency — nonprofits, unions, Joe the Plummer’s — is not an endorsable venture. Nonprofits shouldn’t be bullied into that type of financial black hole without assurance that Providence’s situation will in fact better and that the city won’t become dependent on the temporary relief for its operating expenses.