WARWICK, RI – High School students from Bishop Hendricken, Toll Gate and Piligrim High Schools leveled questions at Warwick’s two mayoral candidates Friday night in Council Chambers at City Hall, touching on topics including airport expansion, school consolidation and accountability, quality of life, the economy, taxes and the budget.
The debate hosted, sponsored by the Warwick Beacon, drew several students from the respective high schools, The four candidates for school committee, Warwick Teachers Union president Darlene Netcoh, and Warwick Schools superintendent Phil Thornton.
The students took turns asking questions of Mayor Scott Avedisian and his Democratic opponent and local businessman, Richard Corrente. The questions were collected from weeks of preparation at the Warwick Beacon offices, and also taken from those in attendance. Spectators were also encouraged to submit questions via Twitter and Facebook.
Following introductions of the candidates by Warwick Beacon publisher John Howell, each made opening statements. Members of the audience, which included fellow students, were instructed to hold their applause until the end of the event, and the time was kept by one of the students.
A flip of the coin by Sean Noonan, a student at Bishop Hendricken, gave Mayor Avedisian the first chance to answer.
School budgets, consolidation
“Before I hand over $160 million of the taxpayers hard-earned money to the school committee, I want them held accountable,” said Corrente.
“Mayor Avedisian hasn’t attended one school committee meeting – I’ve only missed one,” said Corrente. Corrente, after attending each of the school consolidation meetings, believes that the school department is “not ready for Phase II.”
“I am in favor of delaying it for as long as it takes to do a quality job, not a fast job,” Corrente added.
Avedisian, a graduate of Pilgrim High School, said that there has been plenty of communication between himself and the school superintendent, as well as members of the school committee.
“It’s been very difficult, based on our contract, and based on our charter. Once the money goes to the school department, it’s theirs,” Avedisian said of school budgets.
On charter schools, each said his focus would be on Warwick’s public schools, although Avedisian has supported charter schools and had been involved with the Mayoral Academy proposal.
“Some of the charters are doing great things, but right now, in this new beginning in Warwick schools, we need to put our emphasis there,” Avedisian said, although he said he would consider a proposal of a public charter school in one of the City’s buildings.
When asked about the elementary school consolidation, Avedisian noted he had recommended that the decision be delayed for a year, or, if a decision is made, that it would not be implemented for a year.
Corrente agreed, repeating that Phase I is not completed, and “we’re not ready for Phase II.”
A question about taxes led Corrente to repeat an accusation that Avedisian, who has been mayor since 2000, of raising taxes each year since taking office.
Avesidian countered that Warwick’s tax rate ($20.24 per $1000) is lower than that of Providence, Cranston and Pawtucket.
TF Green Airport expansion
Answering a question in regard to airport expansion, Avedisian said that the current expansion, once finished, will be its last.
Corrente called the project one-sided, that the City gave the project the real estate tax revenue of more than 100 properties.
“In return the Rhode Island Airport Corporation gave us soil pollution, water pollution, air pollution and noise pollution. They made lots of promises to insulate and clean and air condition many houses; they got half way through it, then claimed that they ran out of money,” Corrente said, saying that he would like to re-negotiate the deal.
Avedisian said the current agreement prevented interruptions to traffic on Post Road and Airport Road, noting that more funding had been obtained for more sound-proofing, and that nearby aquatic resources have been preserved.
Budget spending cuts
Given Corrente’s campaign slogan to cut taxes and cut spending, the students asked each candidate to identify two line items of the budget that could be cut to save money.
Corrente proposed two ideas; tax rebate checks to attract new businesses to Warwick, and a voluntary pension buy-out program similar to a successful one conducted in Texas.
Avedisian, pointing out that Corrente failed to name two line items, quoted analysis published on the WarwickPost.com Sept. 9 debunking a claim made by Corrente that the city had lost 4,600 businesses in the last 10 years, which had been posted more than 30 times on his website.
In rebuttal, Corrente said his figures came from information from the secretary of state’s office.
“You can look it up yourself. If you don’t think people are moving out of Warwick, just look at our schools,” he said.
Regarding the budget, each candidate was asked how he would avoid cutting programs; about unfunded pensions liabilities and OPEB costs; regarding education, each was asked about the funding of technology.
Each candidate gave closing comments. Avedisian, Warwick’s youngest mayor when he was elected and also Warwick’s longest-serving mayor, highlighted the current $8.5 million surplus in the budget (which, after the final audit, may be assessed as high as $15 million), the near completed work in Apponaug and at the airport, continued preservation efforts at Rocky Point and continued economic growth.
“Businesses continue to open and move to Warwick, and despite erroneous claims, business in the City is booming. Me and my staff have been to ribbon cuttings and openings almost weekly. These small businesses are the backbone of our community. I will continue to do everything I can to make Warwick the best possible option,” said Avedisian, naming the new veterans center on Jefferson Boulevard, a new hotel and City Center as continued growth in the City.
“Warwick is my home, a place that I love, and the only place I could ever live,” he said praising the staff at City Hall, where “he has the privilege to work every day.”
Corrente asked, “Do you want a working man, a business man or a career politician?, someone who will treat the position as a full time commitment. I will be a servant mayor to the City of Warwick,” said Corrente, listing his website and his personal cell phone number, urging residents to contact him with concerns. “I am committed to cutting taxes and cutting spending,” he added.
“It went great, it was an excellent opportunity to see the inner workings of local government,” said Noonan, who said he had an interest in civil service as a career path.