WARWICK, RI — Mayor Joseph Solomon used his state of the city address on Feb. 27 to issue a laundry list of complaints, punctuated with compliments to the city councilors of his party and municipal employees — but lacking any concrete solutions.
While touting recent distinctions bestowed on Warwick for being safe and affordable, Solomon issued several broadsides against its past leadership.
“Those of us inside City Hall know that the full state of our city has not been accurately presented to the public for many years,” said Solomon.
(Left unsaid was whether that alleged inaccurate portrayal meant that the plaudits from websites like Wallethub and SmartAsset.com were actually not warranted.)
This was just one of the many contradictions that emerged from Solomon’s speech; he left the dais after nearly an hour without resolving them. As one example, Solomon called his speech “the first state of the city address,” although former Mayor Scott Avedisian typically used his annual budget address to the council to report on the city’s status and did not hold a separate event to describe it.
“We can no longer kick the proverbial can down the road,” said Solomon, who served for 20 years on the council (including several as president) prior to being named mayor last May, and who arguably had as much opportunity as Avedisian to put solutions in place over those two decades.
From aging sewers to “neglected” recreation facilities to underfunded road repairs, Solomon referred to many deficiencies within the city, implicitly blaming Avedisian without referring to him by name.
At the same time, Solomon claimed credit for his work on the council — during the exact same timeframe — to restore the fishing pier at Rocky Point and address other overdue projects.
And at several points, Solomon pledged to “double down” on several existing initiatives, like the development of City Centre, although he offered few details about how they would be accomplished apart from pledges to work together with developers, business owners, and other city officials.
Passing the buck on the budget
Solomon also attempted to thread another rhetorical needle, essentially arguing that he inherited (rather than contributed to) the city’s current fiscal state.
He used the early part of his speech to criticize Avedisian for the “maintenance budget” he proposed for FY19, alleging that it was based on “a grossly overstated surplus.”
Blaming the reduction of the $23.7 million reserve fund balance on converting streetlight to LEDs (a project Solomon is on the record supporting) without the needed $500,000 in funding being in place; $950,000 in contract settlement costs that he said were not funded in the budget submitted by Avedisian; and what he called “countless cost increases” tied to new police and municipal contracts, Solomon said that “a tax increase should have been proposed to offset these increased expenses.”
Solomon also chided Avedisian for failing to properly fund the school department in his FY19 budget proposal — another contradictory statement, since the council eventually passed a budget that underfunded the schools by some $5 million, resulting in a potential $12 million school budget deficit in FY20.
In bringing this part of the speech to its conclusion, Solomon said the FY18 budget required $4.2 million from the surplus — after the council turned down Avedisian’s proposal that would have raised $7.1 million in tax revenue — and blamed Avedisian for that and the deficit left in FY19 after the city council ultimately passed a state-capped tax increase.
Taken together, those two deficit budgets reduced the surplus to between $13 million and $15 million, Solomon said.
Put simply, Solomon did everything he could to rewrite the last two years’ history of Warwick budgets, and blame as much of the city’s current condition as he could on his predecessor.
What was the purpose of this speech?
In the end, the question must be raised about just what Solomon was trying to do with this address.
While he rightly credited first responders, sewer department staffers, and other public employees for their work under often-harrowing conditions, Solomon otherwise tried to give himself and the city council all of the credit and none of the blame for their decisions over the past two years as he ascended to the mayor’s office.
And in the few moments where he sought to inspire his audience, his rhetoric sounded hollow because it lacked any specificity about how he, as the elected leader of the city, would address the issues facing it.
His repeated variations on “we will work together because we know how to work together” were severely undercut by re-litigating the last two years and attacking Avedisian at every opportunity.
Solomon could get away with this because he had a friendly audience; Council President Steve Merolla took several chances to laud Solomon (and implicitly spite Avedisian) for what Merolla claimed was a new openness between the council and mayor.
Having a 9-0 Democratic lockout on the city council clearly emboldened Solomon to take this tack during his speech, which ultimately came off as less of a report and more of a rally.
Conclusion: The state of the city, as represented by Solomon last night, is vindictive, inaccurate, and contradictory.