Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tom Sgouros on Central Falls

Rhode Island Policy Reporter:

I read one "analysis" that said that Central Falls was too small to be independent, and it should join with Lincoln, Cumberland, or Pawtucket. This is your typical 30-second analysis: superficially plausible, but fundamentally ridiculous. With analysis like this, we'll all be broke soon. Central Falls is in a bind because their property tax revenue can't pay their expenses. Why should any other town want to accept that burden? None of its neighboring towns are exactly pillars of financial strength. Were Pawtucket to annex Central Falls, what would be the result except to bring Pawtucket a step closer to its own fiscal armageddon?

Perhaps it's interesting to ask how they got in this bind? Why, after all, is Central Falls so small? Who was it who thought such a small city was viable? Well, maybe it was all the rich people who used to live there.

Central Falls was a wealthy community of manufacturers and their employees when the larger town of Smithfield broke up in the 19th century, leaving it as the smallest piece. There was no question of its viability then; there was plenty of money to go around. Even as late as 1950, measured by amount of taxable property per student in its schools, Central Falls was one of the richest towns in the state, behind only Providence, Pawtucket and Woonsocket, and there was a considerable gap between them and fifth-place Newport. (Narragansett was actually first, but that's only because they had so few students, so I ignore them here.)

So what happened? The biggest demographic shift in our state and our nation's history, that's what. In the second half of the 20th century, our nation perfected suburbs, and the highways and cars that made them possible. In 1950, it was thought stupid to expect to live in East Greenwich and work in Providence; the country was for hicks. By 1970, that was no longer true. By 1990, the reverse was true for many. This is the very definition of an epochal shift. During those years, hundreds of thousands of people moved from our urban centers to what had been the countryside. Rich neighborhoods like Central Falls or Elmwood in Providence ( o/ -ed.) became desperately poor ones, while poor places like East Greenwich became quite rich. Central Falls became the poorest municipality in the state, followed by Woonsocket, Providence, Burrillville, and Pawtucket.

Tom is addressing Central Fall's budget woes more than its schools here. He is right that there is no problem with having a 1.3 square mile city, if it is wealthy, e.g., Hoboken. A 1.3 square mile poor city and/or school district, however, is another matter.

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