WARWICK, RI — Republican Ward 1 Warwick City Council candidate Scott Phillips, a finance and accounting professional working as an accounting manager for Sun Life Financial, offers a professional take on city finance and budget matters, and a fresh look at the balance between the city and schools budgets.
“When elected, I will bring finance and budget experience that is sorely lacking on the current city council. This experience includes working collaboratively with executives and multiple business functions to manage their expenses and budgets as well as assisting them in building their businesses to run more efficiently for future success. I also have experience working on healthcare contracts and budgets. I have regularly worked hand in hand with actuaries in regard to Pension and OPEB Plans,” Phillips wrote on his campaign website, where he offers detailed outlines of his approach to city issues.
Warwick Post.com emailed the same 10 questions to each Ward 1 candidate Monday night and gave them until Friday, Oct. 30, to respond. Each was asked to acknowledge receipt of the emailed questions, and their intent to answer them.
Phillips acknowledged receipt Oct. 27 and returned his answers on Oct. 30. Following are his answers, printed verbatim:
1) During the May 27 budget hearing, Mayor Solomon failed to answer or to pledge to answer several questions posed by citizens and Council members, as reported in the Warwick Post article: Warwick Budget Hearing Questions Unanswered.
What would be your approach to handling this behavior if it were your questions ignored? What if a citizen or fellow council member’s budget question went unanswered?
Sadly, I already have experience with this since my interaction, or lack thereof, is included in the article you reference above. I would handle it the same way I handled it in the last budget hearing. I would continue to ask the question and explain why it is a legitimate question while being respectful and calm the entire time. Asking why salaries are going up 10% while headcount is going down 12.5% in one department is a legitimate question. The mayor and other city leaders need to be able to answer the questions from the City Councilors and the taxpayers regarding budgets, expenses etc. If they do not have the answer right then, they should agree to go back and find the answers and follow up with the taxpayer or the member of the City Council in a reasonable amount of time. I think this should also be true of taxpayer question to members of the City Council. They are there to answer the questions of the taxpayers. I would respectfully ask that the person just please answer the question and that if they do not have the answer at the moment they please get back to the person asking the question.
2) Warwick City Council subcommittee meetings often run over time, delaying the start of the full Council meeting. What is your assessment of this process? Should it be changed, and if so, how?
The length of some of the City Council meetings is a problem. Thankfully, they are recorded but if people want to comment or they need to appear for some reason they are sitting for hours at times.
I am not sure how early the City Council members get their packets for the meetings, but if it is possible for them to get the information earlier so they have more time to review prior to the meetings that could help. The main culprit most of the time is the finance committee. This is due to the fact that they usually have more items and bigger issues on a regular basis. Maybe the finance committee meets the week before the full council meeting. This would also give departments time to respond to questions that came up in the Finance committee meeting by the time the full committee votes. I also think we could have more special meetings for major issues like contract reviews and other items that you know will take an extended time like the meeting last year discussing the school budget. If possible, you could try and schedule a couple major issues during those special meetings. For example, if you have groups that present to the City Council like the Warwick Sewer Authority and the Pension Board try and schedule both of those in one special meeting instead of fitting them into the normal City Council meetings.
3) What other processes of the City Council would you argue to change?
The City Council needs to be more flexible with their schedule of items or at least do a better job organizing the schedule. If you know you have an item that people are coming to comment on you should move that to the top of the agenda. It was frustrating last year when students, parents and coaches had to sit and stand for hours waiting to discuss school funding and losing sports as the Finance Committee discussed purchases first. Common sense would say the City Council should have moved the schedule around to accommodate this issue and the people taking their time to pack city hall. If they cannot by law, then they need to look at how to make that change. Similarly, if you have committees that have people who need to present, those committees should be moved before the Finance Committee. Someone attending or calling in to a meeting should not have to wait for an hour or more over when they were told to attend.
4) During a recent City Council meeting, Councilman Ed Ladouceur complained of his inability to get the City to properly repair Lipitt Park following a recent car crash that damaged it. The meeting ended with his successful resolution forcing the City to make the repairs.
Should citizens expect that their council representative must pursue such measures to secure City services? How would you address this problem?
You hope that things like this get repaired in a timely manner so it does not get to the point where your City Councilor needs to get involved. If not, then, yes, Citizens should expect their City Councilor to advocate for them.
Communication is key between all parties when trying to resolve issues like this. If a taxpayer were to come to me with an issue that has not been resolved, I would talk to them and get all the information they have. I would then reach out the city department handling the issue and discuss it with them to get all the information they have and what the status of correcting the issue is. At times, there may be legitimate reason for a delay. If that is the case, then I would explain the issue to the taxpayer. I would then continue to follow up with the city and keep the taxpayer informed on the status of the issue. If there is not a legitimate reason for the delay, I would work with the city department to expedite fixing the issue especially if it is a safety issue. If nobody gets back to me or it still is not getting done after a period of time, then your only recourse is to do what Councilman Ladouceur did and bring it up in a public meeting. That is not the ideal way to approach it but if you cannot get answers or action taken on an issue then you need to do what you can to advocate for the taxpayers in your Ward.
5) Looking back at the 2019 Warwick Schools budget crisis, how would you handle city and school communication differently?
The 2019 Warwick Schools budget crisis is an example on how poor communication can create animosity and mistrust. Honest communication is key when dealing with anyone, but especially between the City Council, the School Committee and even the School Administration and Teachers Union. It is not the time for posturing and political games. These are our kids we are talking about so everyone should be up front and put all their cards on the table to get things done instead of seeing who blinks first.
Personally, whether I do this myself or as part of a group of City Councilors, I would want to meet from time to time with the groups on the school side. These meetings would include members of the school committee, the Superintendent and certain members of his staff depending on what the hot topics are. For example, it would be beneficial to include the finance director in a finance update to make sure both sides are aligned on finances. Last but not least, I would also want to talk from time to time with members of the WTU to understand their perspective on issues as well. I have many friends who are teachers and they are a valuable resource of information and I value when their points of view and experience. I believe gathering as much information from all sides of an equation is important to understand what is working and what is not to help improve relationships.
In my opinion, the School Department is the most important city department we have. Having great schools will drive people to move to Warwick. Improving our schools will take money but it will also take all sides working together towards a common goal and putting politics aside. I have spent years working with different business functions not only within the US but different countries. They had different agendas, different customs and different ways of doing things. I had to get them all to buy in to what we were looking to do in Corporate. I always had great relationships with people I work with and I want to use those interpersonal skills to help build relationships between the city and all stake holders on the School side.
6) Millions Of dollars have been budgeted the last few years for repairing Warwick’s roads, yet only a fraction of that amount is ever used. For instance, in the article, Schools’ Budget Ask Would Have Added $104 to Median Tax Bill, DPW Director Mat Soliton reported there was $3.1M unspent from the $5M in the previous years paving budget. This year, the paving budget was reduced to $500K, but a $10M bond has been secured for paving.
Will you continue to vote to approve budgeting paving funds in amounts the city typically fails to use?
The paving budget has been an interesting topic for years. Some years it was so woefully under budgeted and in other years it was incredibly overfunded and became what we call when managing budgets “padding your budget.” If the city has never shown the ability to pave close to $5M in roads in a year then it should not have an approved paving budget for $5M. You should at the time of the budget meetings present your plan for paving, how many streets you feel you can pave, and how much that will cost. This approach is not just for paving; this is for all major line items. Just because you had a certain amount budgeted in the prior year does not mean you get the same amount in the current year. I think in back to back years the city was able to cut or redistribute major amounts of the paving budget. To me, this means the budget was padded.
We need to do a better job maintaining our infrastructure. The city was lucky that interest rates are at an all-time low so they were able to secure bond funding to do this at these low rates. This is a good start to getting our infrastructure where it needs to be. We need to continue to budget properly to maintain our infrastructure going forward so that we do not end up here again at a time when we are not lucky enough to have such low interest rates.
In the future I will approve budget amounts that I am given backup for and a realistic plan to spend the money that is being requested. Again, just because you had the money in your budget in the past does not mean you will get the same amount in the current year. On the other hand, this could also mean you get more if there is a need. We need to be flexible where we spend our budget dollars and spend them where they will do the most good.
7) How would you make the city’s road projects more accountable and transparent to citizens?
The city should post all of the progress of current projects and upcoming projects on their website. As far as road projects specifically I assume there is a preliminary listing of what streets are expected to be paved. This should be available to taxpayers online. It should include the streets that have been paved, the date the road was completed, what ward they are in, the cost that was budgeted and the actual cost to pave the road. Also there should be a list of upcoming roads to be paved including the estimated date and the estimated cost.
Transparency with bonds is very important and I think the city agrees as they have made this very clear with the school bonds. We should practice what we preach. I also think it is important that the citizens see what is getting done in their own neighborhoods and can follow the progress of the projects.
8) Was the surprise Dec. 20 special meeting to ratify the Firefighter’s Contract called by the Warwick City Council, catching one Council member on a flight, and ultimately ruled illegal, a wise decision?
I agree with holding special meetings for major items where there is an expectation that debate and public comment could take up a significant amount of time. This makes sense as not to bog down some of the normal business discussed during the regular meetings. I would say contracts and items like the school funding issue would fall under this category. That being said issuing subpoenas to City Council members to meet on the Friday before Christmas was a terrible decision. There was no reason a special meeting could not have been scheduled after the holiday. Also Councilman Rix was not even able to attend and a decision of this significance should have every council member present.
I think the proof that it was a terrible idea was that it was deemed not be a legal meeting. When we are issuing subpoenas to our colleagues then we have lost our way. These special meetings should be during a time all council members can attend and it is convenient for taxpayers to attend as well.
Further proof that it was a terrible decision is when they finally went to vote on the contract it still had language in it that was not clear and needed to be fixed. So if you are rushing through a contract at least make sure the language in it is clear and accurate. There were two additional weeks to clean up the language and that still did not get done.
My hope is in the future we can all work together to work through major items like contracts without issuing subpoenas and all the animosity. We will debate and disagree on things but let’s do it with professionalism.
9) Considering the Warwick Firefighters’ union’s past history with contractual agreements, was it wise to pass the document with uncorrected errors?
It is not wise to pass any contract with uncorrected errors. This is especially true when incorrect language in contracts recently cost the city millions of dollars. There was no reason they could not wait another week or two to clean up the language in the contract and then pass it. I found it telling that the majority of the attorneys on the City Council voted against the contract with two of them noting that the main reason they were voting against it was because of the language issues in the contract. These would be the legal experts on the council.
10) President Donald J. Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election, and has violated First Amendment protections with repeated attacks against the press and use of tear gas against peaceful protesters.
What is your position on upholding the Constitution of the United States of America, including the First Amendment? What of the country’s unbroken record of the peaceful transfer of power?
I am a strong believer in the Constitution especially the First Amendment. I also believe in Freedom of the Press.
If a sitting president loses an election then the people have spoken and he or she should adhere to a peaceful transition of power and leave office upon the inauguration of the new president.