December 22, 2014
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Council seeks answers on flood insurance costs
Jennifer Rodrigues and John Howell

City officials are in agreement that residents need more information on changes in the flood insurance program that could boost premiums for some homeowners to $25,000 a year.

On Sept. 9 in a grueling seven hours between committee meetings and a full council meeting, the council approved a resolution calling on congressional representatives to appear before them. That action would seem to echo Mayor Scott Avedisian’s appeal to the Federal and Rhode Island Emergency Management Agencies to conduct a second insurance workshop for Warwick residents.

But Avedisian didn’t sign the resolution.

That had Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon questioning the mayor’s intent.

Told that the mayor favors a workshop rather than an inquiry by the council, Solomon said, “I don’t know what he is looking for because he doesn’t communicate with us. I’m willing to sacrifice my schedule to get the information.”

Citing the city’s 28 miles of shoreline, Solomon called the matter of flood insurance “as important, if not more important than any tax increase” to Warwick residents.

Avedisian spelled out his position in a letter to Ward 5 Councilman Edgar Ladouceur, who sponsored the resolution.

“I am not sure the congressional delegation was contacted prior to the resolution being passed. I feel a workshop format is far more conducive for residents and business owners because it would give them the opportunity to speak directly with FEMA/RIEMA staff to get answers to their individual situations,” he writes.

FEMA has not responded to Avedisian’s request that was made in mid-August. In a letter received yesterday, RIEMA executive director Jamia McDonald said the agency staff “stand ready” to conduct a briefing for the council as well as provide materials and information for residents.

In his response to Avedisian, Ladouceur said, “I look forward to working with you on this very seditious matter that will have a very negative impact on our citizens as well as our city.”

During the extended meeting on Sept. 9 that came to a close about 11:45 p.m., the council also wrestled with a resolution that would have allowed residents on Hall Street to tie into natural gas service and revisions to the fire, police and municipal pension programs.

Ladouceur led the effort for added information on flood insurance.

“I think this is such a significant issue,” Ladouceur said at the council meeting. He worries 80 percent of people who would be affected are not aware of the higher premiums they will face.

The resolution was co-sponsored by Solomon, who fears increases in flood insurance premiums for a portion of the community will lead to a “domino effect” throughout the city.

“There is a lot of interest in the community relative to [flood insurance],” said Solomon.

Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson also supported a meeting.

“There is a lot of confusion,” said the councilwoman, adding that she had her constituents say the increase in flood insurance is just “one more reason to get out of the area.”

Because the changes stem from federal legislation, Ladouceur is requesting the presence of members of Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation or representatives from their offices at the meeting.

“I don’t like the motivation to do this in the first place,” said Ladouceur. “I want someone to come to us and explain this.”

The resolution passed, however no meeting date was scheduled.

Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla presented an ordinance that would allow residents on Hill Street to connect to existing gas lines. Area residents are seeking to convert to natural gas as the cost of heating oil is putting a hardship on them.

These concerns were brought to Merolla earlier this year by constituents who had requested to connect to the gas line and were told by National Grid that was not possible because the Department of Public Works would not issue a permit.

“DPW has an unwritten rule, once you pave a street, you have to wait five years before you put cuts in it,” said Merolla.

Hall Street was paved three and a half years ago, but Merolla believes an exception should be made for this small side street. There are only 10 residents on the street, and two are requesting to be connected. To connect, a three-by-three curb cut is needed in front of each residence.

The two residents requesting the cuts, Veronica Sebastian, a veteran who lives with her husband (also a veteran) and her two young children, and Ann Darcy, an older woman relying on little income, presented their case to the council. Both explained that they keep their homes at 57 degrees in the winter to afford oil heating but even that costs thousands; Sebastian said that she pays more than $1,800 a month.

The hearing quickly turned into a heated debate between Merolla and DPW Director David Picozzi.

Picozzi called Merolla’s ordinance one of the “most bizarre ordinances” he had seen. He also pointed out that National Grid requests 400 road openings a year and his department turns down dozens and dozens of road cut requests.

“I can tell you, when you start cutting up the road, you compromise that road,” said Picozzi, adding that his department is doing their due diligence to protect the city’s infrastructure.

Picozzi also said if one road request is approved through an ordinance, it could lead to a slew of phone calls from attorneys looking to do the same.

Merolla feels two small curb cuts to help struggling residents should not be receiving so much opposition.

“I agree with what the department director was saying,” said Merolla in a phone interview yesterday, “but I think you need to look at each case [individually].”

Merolla also pointed out that the request had passed as a resolution four months ago, but National Grid informed him it needed to be an ordinance to move forward. A vote on the Hall Street ordinance was postponed but Merolla is hopeful.

“I’m looking for cooler heads to prevail,” he said.

Merolla was also a key player in a prolonged discussion of the fire, police and municipal pension plans. Three ordinances were up for first passage that would require an annual actuarial study of each plan to be conducted and presented to City Council every February.

While it was agreed an annual report on the financial health of the pension funds was positive, Merolla and Ladouceur questioned Mark Carruolo, Mayor Scott Avedisian’s Chief of Staff, about differences in the language of the three plans.

“Why doesn’t one plan have the same language as the others,” asked Ladouceur. “A should mirror B and C in terms of percentage.”

“There are many provisions that are inconsistent,” said Merolla. “Some bargaining groups get contributions every two weeks. Others get contributions every three months.”

Merolla also pointed out the Fire Fighter Pension has an amortization period of 20 years, while the municipal’s is 25.

“That means some people are getting more up front than others,” he said. There was concern over mayoral and council approval in some plans but not others. “Provisions like that need to be cleaned up.”

Merolla believes a committee or actuary could be brought in to make the plans uniform.

However, Carruolo doesn’t believe uniformity is achievable. “They are not uniform because each of the plans were created at different times,” said Carruolo, pointing out that the plans also vary in the way they operate and the benefits they offer. “Police offers something different from Fire, which offers something different from Municipal.”

One example he gave is police officers and firefighters can retire earlier due to the physical nature and danger associated with the job; those in municipal positions stay in their jobs for much longer.

“They can’t be the same because they are not the same,” said Carruolo.

Carruolo says attempting to make the three pension plans uniform would require someone deciding what is best and getting the three parties to agree.

“While it sounds like a good idea, I don’t think it would be feasible,” said Carruolo.

The ordinance regarding the yearly actuarial reports did pass but it is clear the discussion on changes to these plans is far from over.


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