A lot of back and forth among council members went on at Monday’s meeting concerning the appointment of former Councilman Donald Torres to the Sewer Authority, and a $2,000 expenditure to reconnect an alarm system at the now-closed Potowomut School.
The $2,000 for the school alarm was approved unanimously, while after an extended debate, the vote on Torres was postponed to Dec. 10 at Torres’ request.
According to the Appointments Committee Chairman Ward 5 Councilman John DelGiudice, Torres, a Ward 2 resident, called him earlier that day and told him that he would be unable to attend the meeting due to a personal reason and asked if the council would consider holding the vote until a later date, as he is interested in attending the meeting in which the vote is made.
DelGiudice relayed this information to the rest of the council during the appointment meeting, which took place at City Hall before the council gathers in Council Chambers at 7 p.m. At that point, the council moved to hold the vote.
In Council Chambers, DelGiudice again explained the situation, but Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon objected, as Torres appeared before the appointments committee Nov. 14.
“Beyond the interview of the candidates, isn’t it incumbent upon the committee to make a recommendation if they so choose to do and then the council votes on it at the next meeting?” Solomon asked.
DelGiudice said that is often the case, but out of respect to Torres, they decided to hold it so he could be present. From there, Solomon inquired if the committee and the rest of the council had any pending questions for Torres.
“I didn’t poll the other council members,” DelGiudice said.
Solomon again asked, “Are there any other questions pending? Otherwise, I’d like to move the vote on this.”
Council President Bruce Place interjected and said that there is a possibility that there may be more questions for Torres from the general public, and noted that the committee recommended to hold the appointment.
But Solomon was not satisfied with Place’s answer.
“In my 12 years on the council, I have never ever had a candidate who has already been interviewed by a council committee control the actions of the City Council in delaying the vote of which they don’t even participate in,” he said.
DelGiudice said that when he was first appointed to the committee in 2004, there were more than 30 appointments being held that needed to be cleared. Solomon didn’t want to hear it.
“Just to refresh Councilman DelGiudice’s recollection, that was at the council’s initiative, not any of the candidates that were being voted upon,” Solomon said. “The candidates did not control the vote of the council. The council controlled voting on the situation back then.”
Place said that the committee made the decision to hold it, not the candidate. Torres, Place said, simply made the request. Solomon argued that DelGiudice indicated that the reason it is being held is due to Torres asking him to.
“That’s what I clearly heard here tonight,” said Solomon. “Maybe you heard something different.”
DelGiudice said, “The Committee chose to hold it out of respect and that’s it.” With that, the topic came to a halt and the rest of the meeting resumed.
In other business, Solomon also questioned a $2,000 request from the city for seven months of monitoring and maintenance of an alarm system at Potowomut School. Department of Public Works Business Manager Christy Woodbury said the request was made because the system is not functioning.
“It’s a dollar a month to have it monitored,” she said. “The parts right now stand at $444 and the labor is $50 an hour, so I gave a best estimate of $2,000, which will include the parts and labor, and the monitoring until July.”
After doing some quick math, Solomon questioned Woodbury if it would take 30 hours of labor to hook up the alarm. She said, “I honestly don’t know.”
To shed some light on the issue, Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla interjected. He said that he recently attended a committee meeting concerning the school at which members discussed possible uses of the building.
Merolla said that while the school has been closed for several years, it was owned by the School Department, which decided to disconnect the alarm. The problem, he said, is that vandals climbed onto the roof, walked around and fell through, damaging the roof. This led to water damage, as well as possible damage to the alarm system.
“They don’t know if the alarms came down or the wires got broken,” said Merolla. “Once they get in there, they’ll have a better idea of how much it’s going to cost to fix.”
Another problem, said Merolla, is the fact that when the School Department deeded the school to the city of Warwick, they put a great deal of “junk equipment” in the building, including old, rusty stoves, books that are “piled to the ceiling” and other materials that have the potential to be hazardous.
“You can’t even walk into some of the rooms because they are piled high with junk,” he said. “At the city’s expense, we’re going to have to clean out the building of all the waste that the School Department left inside. Before they even get in and give us a proper quote, they need to get all the junk out. I’m hoping that $2,000 is enough.”
He continued, “I don’t know if there should be a charge back to the School Department. When you deed a building to another person, you usually get the building in broom-clean condition as part of the closing – not us. They said, ‘It’s yours now, and by the way, all the stuff in it is your problem.’”
From there, Solomon agreed and said that when people receive a deed, they typically do a walk-through of the building to inspect the property as soon as possible. He wondered why that had not been done.
“That’s what a reasonable purchaser would do,” said Solomon. “They wouldn’t wait months down the line to do it. When you’re receiving a bid for work to be performed … you let a contractor go in there to examine the work to be performed, and then give you an estimate of what the costs will be, not a ‘guesstimate’ without even looking. That’s the way I would do it if I were doing it for myself.”
Merolla agreed. He said he felt the bid shouldn’t be before the council, rather, an emergency expenditure that does not require the item to go out for bid should have been considered for liability purposes.
“The longer this waits, the more danger we could have, [such as] a fire or injuries or further vandalism,” Merolla said.
Place reminded Solomon and Merolla that last month the council approved a $1,600 bid to re-alarm the Christopher Rhodes School, which was also given to the city after it closed. The primary concern, he said, is the safety and welfare of the neighbors. He also noted that the city is not liable if anyone is hurt, however, safety is still imperative.
“I was getting five or six calls a week from neighbors that called the Police Department and reported kids loitering,” Place said. “We had a fire hazard there because similar junk and trash was left. The city actually had to get permission from the state to get the property back because of state aid to education. The School Department was willing to give it to us, but it had to clear the state agency, the Rhode Island Department of Education.”
Place said that in the last six months, Rhodes has been vandalized. People have broken into the school to steal materials to scrap, including brass doorknobs, hinges and copper winding from electrical motors.
“It’s been trashed.” Place said. “I asked to re-alarm the place [and] the Fire Department was good enough to go over and take a look at all the alarms [and] reset the alarms. We felt that the neighborhood was in harm’s way with potential fire.”
Considering the situation, Place said, “time is of the essence.”
In a few weeks at Christopher Rhodes School, he said, an open house for potential bidders will be held. He said that there are many non-profits in Warwick that could use bookshelves, chairs, and other remaining supplies.
“Other people might what to bid on [the items,] but we’re going after the non-profits first,” he said. “It could well be a revenue stream for the city and that’s what we’re hoping for.”
While Solomon said he is not disputing the need to have the property protected and alarmed, he believes the city should have provided a more concrete estimate, not a “guesstimate.” He noted that is what a “reasonable person” would do in the private sector and thinks the government should operate the same way.
“What if the contractor goes in there and finds that it’s more than $2,000?” he said. “It works both ways – it could be under $2,000 or it could be more than $2,000. When it comes to awarding bids for alarms or any other service that’s being provided to the taxpayers, it’s always good to have a reasonable estimate before us before we award the contract, unless it’s an emergency.”
He continued, directing his words to Place, “You stated that there’s liability insurance, but I hope there was insurance for the damage incurred on the property that the city will seek reimbursement for. If it does catch fire, I’d hate to see our firefighters risk their lives going into a deathtrap like that. Let the building burn as long as there’s not human life involved.”