On Monday night, the City Council approved issuance of $3.4 million in bonds for the third phase of school fire code improvements. At the same meeting, city purchasing practices came under scrutiny and a councilman and the mayor’s chief of staff faced off in a heated verbal exchange and the same councilman ended up in an exchange with Public Works Director David Picozzi at the end of the meeting.
With the bonds, the School Department would meet fire code improvements at five elementary schools, plus Gorton and Aldrich Junior High Schools; budgeted at $1.1 million and $911,649, respectively. Construction would start this summer on the elementary schools, but could be delayed until 2015 on the junior high schools under an agreement with the state Fire Marshal.
A long-range facilities planning committee recommended closure of the junior high schools with consolidation of Vets High. That plan, however, was not endorsed by the School Committee, which is now looking to hire an outside consultant to draft a consolidation plan in response to the overall decline in student numbers.
School chief budget officer Anthony Ferrucci highlighted the bond proposal, noting that, with completion of Phase III, the department will have met all required fire code upgrades. And while the school bond was by far the largest amount under council consideration, it did not generate the debate that was centered on much smaller amounts.
Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla even raised the issue whether the city, and not the schools, should bear the cost of paying off the bonds.
“We’re the landlord,” he said of the city, “and you’re the tenant and we’re asking you to make the improvements to the building.”
Merolla said he did not know of another municipality that required its school department to pay off bonding from its operating revenues, a policy that the city administration implemented in 2006. The School Committee agreed to the arrangement when the mayor expressed his reluctance for the city to issue more debt.
As schools have been basically level funded in recent years, Merolla said the bonding “dampens our ability to keep schools open.”
Ferrucci didn’t take issue with Merolla’s conclusion.
“I don’t believe this money should be coming from the operating budget … what we’re doing is voting for another cut to the school department,” he said.
Merolla claimed the level funding of schools is “decimating the quality of education.”
Referring to the city budget, he added, “We can’t give all the money to one side [the city] and say to the other [the schools] they are fat pigs.”
Merolla abstained from voting on the bond, which the seven other council members present approved.
Ferrucci’s presentation gained praise from Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon who, up until the school matter, pounded on what he feels is a circumvention of the city bidding process.
Specifically, Solomon asked why estimates on school fire code improvements were so “generalized.”
“If we put the numbers on it, then the contractors will come back with that number,” answered Ferrucci.
Solomon said that is what he was looking for, “straight answers.”
He also got a straight answer from Chief of Staff Mark Carruolo when he asked if, in fact, city employees have the same Blue Cross health coverage, even though the Rhode Island Interlocal Risk Management Trust now administrates the plan.
Carruolo said the plan remains the same, but the administrator has changed. Solomon disagreed, claiming the trust costs “are artificially inflated.” Carruolo repeated his answer. Solomon wasn’t happy and was raising his voice. Carruolo didn’t change his answer.
“Councilman, we can argue all day,” Carruolo fired back. Muttering his dissatisfaction, Solomon backed off.
The issue revolved around a $55,000 bid on medical examinations for fire department personnel. The question raised was whether the examinations would be covered under Blue Cross. Fire Chief Edmund Armstrong said the medical examinations cost $1,100 per person and cover a number of tests not customarily administered as part of an annual physical.
Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur questioned if the department faced a deadline to have the examinations performed, suggesting that it first be determined what Blue Cross would cover. The council eventually agreed to hold over the bid award until next month so the answers could be obtained.
Solomon opened his interrogation over the $611,820 bid of Direct Energy for natural gas. City Purchasing Agent James Marcello termed the bid as exceptionally low and that he was anxious to lock in the price. Solomon noted the bid was for three years, beginning this November, but that a bid for the transportation of the gas was for two years with another company, Santa Buckley. His concern was that the city could be held hostage to transportation costs for the final year of the contract.
Marcello didn’t think that was likely, as the transportation bid was part of a statewide bid.
“If we don’t go out to bid, don’t we circumvent the bidding process?” Solomon questioned.
Both bids were approved, but Solomon persisted on the matter of extending bids or packaging purchases with the state.
He wanted to know why the city hadn’t sought bids on a $264,285 contract that went to Hughes Associates of Warwick for the fire protection engineers of city buildings. He was told there were a limited number of firms that do the work. Picozzi also said that by waiting until state fire codes were finalized, rather than immediately responding to the laws enacted after the Station nightclub fire, “the city saved a lot of money.”
Solomon questioned the process.
Without other bidders, he said, there was no way of knowing what the city might have otherwise paid.
The Hughes contract was approved.
The city was also looking to extend its printing contract with Copy World. Again, Solomon objected. His colleagues agreed that the contract should go out for bids and rejected the request for an extension.
The final exchange of the meeting came over Picozzi’s request for Council approval to spend up to $15,000 to make repairs to the pump for Engine 13. The engine is used as a reserve apparatus and about $4,500 has already been spent on repairs. Solomon insisted on an itemized list of repairs more than a month ago, which has now been provided.
Yet he wanted to go over the list again, raising the ire of Picozzi, who, in frustration, said he would go over it once more if Solomon insisted. The exchange became testy, but in the end the Council approved the repairs with Solomon dissenting and Merolla abstaining.