WARWICK— Mayor Joseph J. Solomon took the oath of office on May 16 after former Mayor Scott Avedisian’s mid-term resignation, working to improve the finance department’s organization, perform more timely audits and opening new communication channels between city and school officials.
It’s a job he hopes to continue during his own full term, with voters’ help Nov. 6.
Solomon began his public service in Warwick as the first Chief Judge of Municipal Court, then spent 18 years representing Ward 4 on the City Council – including eight years as Council President before Avedisian’s resignation.
In answering a series of questions about his bid for a full mayoral term, Solomon expressed a desire to continue reforms he’s implemented, build on economic development work he started on the City Council, and advocate for quality of life issues in Warwick’s relationship with the RI Airport Corporation. His answers, in detail, are included here:
1) You were sworn in as Mayor this year more or less by surprise. Were you thinking about how you would perform the Mayor’s job before Mayor Avedisian resigned? What were your observations?
SOLOMON: The announcement that former Mayor Avedisian was taking the RIPTA post came as a surprise to many. Prior to that announcement, my focus was serving our community as City Council president and representing my constituents in Ward 4.
The former Mayor left office in mid-May which was earlier than had originally been announced. The past five and a half months have been extremely busy, with a number of issues that needed immediate attention. Fortunately, I have a good team in place and very knowledgeable department directors who helped me keep the ship going in the right direction.
2) What are your goals as Mayor? What can voters expect you to work on if you’re elected?
SOLOMON: My goals are to increase jobs and economic development opportunities throughout the City; to continue to invest in our infrastructure through initiatives like our road paving program; to improve our neighborhoods and ensure they are safe and attractive; to ensure that Warwick remains a great place to live while remaining affordable for all residents, particularly young families and seniors; and to continue to work to improve the relationship between the City and Schools. Achieving these goals will continue to be my priority if elected.
3) The City Council passed the last budget without a tax increase while you served as President of the body, and the School Department has complained of deferred investment that contributed to their need of an additional $6 million this year. Would you approach the last two budget seasons differently now?
SOLOMON: The Avedisian administration’s proposed budget for the current fiscal year level funded schools, did not address the additional $4 million in expenses related to collective bargaining agreements that he negotiated set the City up for a structural deficit, and did not address the significant sick time expenses resulting from his side deal with the Firefighters.
It is clear that the budget presented washed its hands of any responsibility to Warwick’s taxpayers and, more importantly, to its school children, leading to draconian cuts to very necessary janitorial staff, the Mentoring program and other essential programs and services.
The prior administration also refused for a number of years to release bond funding that had been approved by voters for necessary school improvements. I am supporting the $40 million school improvement bond, as well as the statewide education bond, so that we will no longer be continually forced to reactively, rather than proactively, address school funding concerns.
4) You spoke about the city finances in disarray when you took office. Can you give three examples of that in action and what you’ve done to address it?
SOLOMON: First, a significant budgetary issue was related to the fire department’s sick time payments, which have annually been a source of concern. As soon as I took office I began looking into this issue and discovered the side agreement made by the Avedisian administration. This agreement, which was never ratified as part of collective bargaining, was in place for five years, costing taxpayers a great deal of money. This was an additional financial drawdown that was unaccounted for by the former administration. Within days of my discovery of this side agreement, the policy was rescinded. I am hopeful that the arbitrator will rule in the City’s favor so that this costly practice – agreed to without public vetting or the Council’s approval – ends for good.
The prior administration represented the fund balance as being between $22 and $25 million, but the preliminary audit shows that figure is closer to between $13 and $14 million. Subsequent to receiving the preliminary audit, the finance director I appointed immediately began keeping track of expenditures in real time.
The final RIPEC report has not yet been submitted but positive changes relative to personnel restructuring within the Finance Department have already been implemented with their input. Preliminary findings show that the prior administration showed a complete lack of understanding of the management structure within the Finance Department. A lack of a succession plan to address vacancies resulted in, among other things, audits being submitted late each year.
I meet at least once a week, often more frequently, with the RIPEC executive director, my finance director and treasurer to keep abreast of any unexpected issues that may arise so that we can address them quickly and efficiently. This will enable us to have a much better handle on the city’s finances when we begin to prepare the FY20 budget. During the prior administration, the final audit was never completed on time, so going into budget season the City Council did not have a true representation of the City’s finances as they began budget hearings.
5) What has the RIPEC review of the city’s finances showed?
As stated above, the final report has not yet been submitted. We have, however, with RIPEC’s input, restructured personnel within the Finance Department so that there is a succession plan in place and employees are cross-trained, which will ensure that audits will be completed on time.
Once their findings have been formalized, we will be certain to release that information to the public.
6) Sue Stenhouse recently released memos from former Mayor Avedisian during the transition detailing water damage assessment for and possible alternatives to the City Hall Annex, contradicting your claim that you weren’t apprised of the situation by Avedisian. Can you explain the discrepancy and summarize the state of the building and your long-term plan for the displaced Annex offices?
SOLOMON: When I took office, due to the lack of any hard copies of the report, I had to request from our insurer that the file be recreated. Within that file was a request from the adjustor to the prior administration that a structural report be completed. That was never done.
Because the structural report is a vital piece of information that is necessary to move forward, I immediately commissioned a structural report. That has now been completed and I continue to work with our insurance provider to address this issue and reach a resolution as quickly as possible. In the meantime, I am exploring a number of alternatives in order to get those departments presently in Draper to a better, more convenient location, including the Buttonwoods Community Center, which we are in the process of rehabilitating.
7) Your opponent has described the Mayor’s office as a natural mediator between the School Department and City Council. What are your plans for persuading the two bodies to work more cooperatively?
SOLOMON: Since I took office, I have worked to keep the lines of communication open between my office, school administration and the school committee. We have been meeting regularly to address the concerns relative to the $4 million shortfall that was created in great part by the level-funded budget the prior administration submitted just before leaving for a state job.
In addition to the City Council’s additional $1.5 million allocation in the FY20 budget, I offered the School Department an additional $1.75 million. My goal would be that this funding be used to restore cuts that have been made, particularly to janitorial staff and the mentoring program.
I also recently announced my intention to meet monthly with representatives of our school’s PTAs and PTOs. Having open honest discussions with parents and teachers about their concerns – both district-wide and relative to their particular school – will help us to more efficiently and proactively address any issues that arise. Having a direct line of communication between these organizations is important because it will give me a direct understanding from those who are in our schools on a daily basis.
8) While you presided as Warwick City Council president, the Council and School Committee failed to meet as required to discuss the budget. Why didn’t this meeting happen? What would you do differently, or advise Council President Merolla to do next time?
SOLOMON: As noted in the answer above, I have been meeting with the superintendent, members of the school committee and City Council to address the school budget. This process is ongoing and part of efforts to resolve not only the budgetary gap but to improve communication as well.
9) What is the status of the City Centre development project? What do you think the City needs to do there to ensure its success?
SOLOMON: City Center Warwick is really starting to come into its own. As you know, the Hyatt Place opened this summer – a $25million project. Peak Performance has moved into a larger facility on Coronado Road, and Newport Harbor Group has purchased the Iron Works Tavern. The Hilton Garden was recently sold to a NYC-based company, and the prior owner has plans for development on the parcel adjacent to the hotel. Under my watch, the Radisson Hotel is undergoing an extensive renovation, with additional mixed-use development planned on the property.
All of these signal a belief in our concept for City Centre Warwick both by developers and private entities who have invested significant money in the area.
The improvements along Coronado Road were important in that they have helped to improve the gateway into City Centre and signal to developers and investors that both the city and state are committed to making our vision of City Centre a reality.
Another key piece was passage of the Tax Stabilization Agreement legislation, which I sponsored, that is helping to spur development there.
We are working to perfect the City Centre concept with the addition of an innovation hub that will attract medical, healthcare, and technology companies within a concentrated area supported by City Center.
I remain committed to working with existing businesses and potential investors directly to support them in their efforts to succeed there. We also have a robust marketing campaign.
10) How do you think the relationship between the City and the RI Airport Corporation is working out for the City?
SOLOMON: As many know, the relationship between RIAC and the City was strained for more than a decade as the debate over runway expansion went on. Now that that project has been completed, I think the relationship has improved.
Nevertheless, there are still many issues that concern our residents about which we must remain vigilant. Nighttime work, late night flights and those that go beyond the curfew, tree cutting, and water quality issues are matters that we must continue to address so that the airport does not adversely affect the quality of life for those who live in the shadow of the airport.
From an economic development standpoint, the addition of new carriers and expansion of domestic and international flights will only help to bolster our local economy and the state’s position as a convenient place in which to do business and travel.
I look to Federal and State sources of revenue to offset cost of services provided to the Airport to alleviate the local taxpayer contributions for services.