Enough with Boring Budgets: Mayor Smiley’s first PVD Budget Leaves Opportunities on the Table

I used to believe that boring government was good government, that if you didn’t hear about scandals, corruption, and other sensational news stories about leaders, that meant that things were probably going okay and weren’t worth digging into. 

As it turns out, boring government is more of a government purgatory — just because it isn’t loudly bad, doesn’t mean it’s good — and sometimes its boringness works as a bulwark in favor of the status quo. 

No one wants to go to finance meetings and listen to the discussions. When was the last time you heard “Hey, I’ve got nothing going on today so I’m going to go down to city hall and listen to a discussion about tax stabilization agreements”? Admittedly, if you’re a friend of mine you may have heard this at some point, but generally not often. 


Enter Brett Smiley, the 39th Mayor of Providence. With his intellectual demeanor and years of government experience, most residents of the city probably feel like they don’t have to be entirely on guard. Brett has proven himself to be an incredibly capable administrator, and his technocratic, nuts-and-bolts campaign message has been made tangible in these first days of his administration, especially in his FY24 budget. 

The budget calls for a responsible property tax raise in anticipation of a recession, more police funding, funding graffiti removal, sidewalk improvements, and a more modern constituent request tracking system. These budget priorities, which sound like they were chosen by a grumpy neighbor named Mortimer, are excellent for an evening read if you’d like to get a good night’s rest, besides perhaps the property tax raise, which could cause a toss or a turn before settling in. 

There is a price to pay for permitting a technocrat to set the tone, however. The critical thing to remember is that maintaining the norm has real opportunity cost: the questionable logic of yesteryear remains unchallenged, the privileged beneficiaries of the status quo continue as is, and the potential for a better path is squandered.

I’ll acknowledge that being the Mayor of Providence is an incredibly difficult job, not just for becoming a proverbial punching bag every time someone’s tire drops into a pothole or a traffic light goes out, but for having to appease an incredible multitude of constituencies with relatively limited resources, especially those that ought to be committed to Smiley’s inherited but nonetheless jaw-dropping $1.2 billion-dollar black hole that is the pension liability. 

But could Providence be the best-run city in America while also standing up for its residents? Instead of just adding a housing coordinator alongside the do-nothing argument that the best way to alleviate the housing crisis is by waiting for the state to build more, could we establish a task force to study rent stabilization as is being discussed in Boston and implemented in Oregon? Could we explore regulating AirBNB, which is driving housing scarcity? Instead of more police, how about funding the proposed Office of Community Safety, which would divert a percentage of PPD calls to community responders? These solutions are good investments that could save the city and its residents in the long term and could propel Providence to the cutting edge of social problem solving. 

A second look at the budget reveals that despite the fact that it appears benign, it inherently favors grumpy neighbor Mortimer at the expense of the neediest among us by saying, “Same old, same old.” 

Some elements of this budget even seem reckless, and disappointing for such an intellectual city leader: while raising taxes on residential property, the 39th mayor cut taxes for commercial property owners, saying “it is my hope that this will be either passed on to the renters or slow or pause the rental increases, which are killing our residents.” While ‘hope’ is the state motto, this sentiment does not fill me with it. What fuels his hope? Certainly not a long list of studies or real-world examples. And didn’t he just suggest that a recession was coming? 

In response, Councilor Miguel Sanchez said it best: “In what world?” 

If this sounds reminiscent of Reagan’s largely disproven trickle-down economics, it is- or pretty close anyway. These sorts of proposals make it clear which constituency seems to have the mayor’s attention. 

Mayor Smiley can both maintain his “back to basics” approach while simultaneously pursuing visionary changes in policy. States are the laboratories of democracy, and cities even moreso, people across the country look to their cities to lead the way in solving complex national problems, and Rhode Island is no exception.

Providence can and should walk and chew gum at the same time by balancing budgets and setting a benchmark for social progress in the Ocean State.