Town has flaws too

May 9, 2014 

No doubt, better schools would help cure what ails Smithfield, which is why Mayor John Lampe is urging parents to lobby the school system for change.

But in listening to the mayor, one gets the sense he blames everyone but the town’s leadership for Smithfield’s many woes. Even when he acknowledges, for example, that Smithfield has too few owner-occupied homes, he points the finger at others, not town councils that allowed property owners to turn their four-bedroom houses into four one-bedroom apartments.

This much everyone knows about Smithfield: No one is building houses here, and young families aren’t moving here. The town’s population was virtually unchanged from 2000 to the last census in 2010. And because people aren’t moving to Smithfield, businesses aren’t flocking here either. “Retail follows rooftops” is a cliché, but it also happens to be true.

Granted, better schools would no doubt help attract young families, who are surely scared away when they read Smithfield school report cards online. And for that reason, the mayor is right to be lobbying for change in the schools.

But he should also be lobbying his council for policy changes that complement school improvement. He could, example, join Councilmen Perry Harris and Emery Ashley in pushing to end the practice of transferring electricity profits to the general fund. Over the weekend, we spoke to a Smithfield leader who said an industry with plants in multiple locations chose to expand elsewhere because the cost of Smithfield electricity was too high. Ending electricity-profit transfers would allow the council to lower rates. If that happened, industries with good-paying jobs would find Smithfield more attractive. And those jobs would, in turn, make Smithfield more attractive to young families.

The point here is that while Smithfield lobbies for school change, it can be getting its own house in order. In addition to moving to lower electricity rates, the town council should review its regulations to make sure it’s not raising costly barriers to business. A ride along Smithfield’s main thoroughfares shows many empty storefronts, and the town should make it easy to occupy those.

The town council should also be looking at how it can encourage homeownership, because homeownership, unlike renting, promotes stable neighborhoods whose residents are invested in the community.

We support the mayor in his efforts to make Smithfield schools better. But he should acknowledge that bad policy decisions in the past have contributed to Smithfield’s malaise, and the town council can fix those mistakes without having to lob rotten tomatoes at anyone.

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