As was reported by Jim Baron in The Woonsocket Call, newly elected House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello visited Woonsocket recently. While I only became aware of his visit after the fact, and was disappointingly not invited to the Rotary Club luncheon that he addressed, I should like to address the Speaker through this most public of forums, the interwebs.
Mattiello, with House Majority Leader John DeSimone in tow, was given a tour of the city by Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, and our delegation to the House of Representatives Reps. Stephen Casey, Bob Phillips, and Mike Morin. Stops on the tour included WWII Memorial Park – the only state park in the city – our barely breathing Diamond Hill retail district, Landmark Medical Center, The Plastics Group, and a visit to an Advanced Placement Government class at Woonsocket High School. After the tour, Baron reports that the Speaker said, “I got a good view of Woonsocket today. You’ve got some great things going on, but there is also blight in certain areas.”
That comment makes me wonder if the tour wasn’t a bit sugar-coated by the Mayor and our Representatives because, frankly, the entire city is suffering from blight.
Even the city’s swankiest neighborhoods – the North End and East Woonsocket – are rife with homes that have been abandoned due to the foreclosure crisis and skyrocketing property taxes. The two largest commercial plots in the Fairmount neighborhood -which happen to be directly opposite one another on the banks of the Blackstone – look like a warzone. The spectre of non-resident tenement and corporate development owners looms large on streets like 3rd Ave., Pond St., Chester St., and many others. The decline of the city is no more evident than on Main St., where one of the most historic buildings in the city, the Commercial Block, is slated for condemnation.
While addressing the Rotary Club, Mattiello stressed the importance of infrastructure and education saying, “We have to stop having an infrastructure that our citizens complain about,” and that, “A well trained, well-educated workforce produces more and makes us better citizens.” I agree with Mattiello on these points, but have to ask, isn’t the lack of state funding in both of these areas a major driver of the decline of Woonsocket’s roads, bridges, and education system?
Baron admits in the story that the crowd at the luncheon was, “heavy with businessmen and women,” and toward the end of the article writes that when Mattiello was questioned on taxes, he responded, “I’m looking at the corporate tax. I want to get rid of the inheritance tax cliff.”
This ranks among the top three most tone-deaf things I’ve heard fall from the lips of any politician. The top two are Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comment, and George W. Bush’s, “Mission accomplished.”
First, most folks in Woonsocket, even businessmen and women, don’t give a damn about the corporate income tax. What Woonsocket businesses need – and I’d argue most businesses in any of Rhode Island’s four core cities – is property tax relief. Besides, if you look at the corporate tax returns in Rhode Island, the majority of businesses in Rhode Island aren’t paying anywhere near the 9 percent that is written into our tax structure.
Second, does anyone out there think that the inheritance tax “cliff” of $921,655 matters at all to people in a city where the median income is $39,000/year?
Mattiello also said that Woonsocket is, “…a city that needs our attention right now.” Let’s file this one under, “No shit, Sherlock.”
Woonsocket has needed attention, not only from the state, but from our own elected officials for the last 30 years. We needed attention way back in 1991, when a young Dave Fisher had to protest outside of Woonsocket High School to keep our sports, music, and arts programs funded. We needed attention when – then city councilor, now council President – Albert Brien, sold a tract of land on the Woonsocket/N. Smithfield border to developer who then poached Wal-Mart and Lowe’s from our Diamond Hill retail district. We needed attention when we crossed the threshold of state mandated affordable housing, putting an onerous strain on our city’s education and human services budgets. We needed attention when our only state park was falling into disrepair, yet the budget for DEM continued to be slashed. Where was the state support in these instances?
What makes Woonsocket’s situation even more maddening is the fact that, for 150 years, Woonsocket was a key economic and social driver in Rhode Island. It was a place where blue-collar folks could go to make a decent living, and maybe afford that little beach house in Matunuck. Unfortunately, since the decline of the manufacturing economy in the state, it seems that our state government has written Woonsocket off as not salvageable; talk about adding insult to injury.
Please forgive my cynicism and compound metaphor, but the state has all too often pulled the rug out from under Woonsocket while simultaneously shoving us under the bus. For as little faith as I have in our newly elected mayor, I have even less faith that our state government will – or even can – help to save the once vibrant city of Woonsocket.