In August of 1999 when he accepted the job as city finance director, Ernest Zmyslinski imagined that he would stay at most no more than two years. Now, 18 years later, making him arguably the city’s longest serving finance director, he is returning to his roots. On Oct. 10 he will assume the post of West Warwick town manager.
Zmyslinski, 60, has been at the helm during some rough fiscal seas. One of the most challenging times was in 2007 and 2008 when state aid was dramatically cut. The options were few and, through a combination of a modest tax increase, budget cuts and sacrifices made by municipal employees – unions agreed to furlough days, deferred time off and pay freezes – the city was able to pull through.
It was a tough time, but it was also a shining moment, as Zmyslinski said the response “typifies the relationship we have here…cooperation is the hallmark of working here.”
But then Zmyslinski didn’t expect to make a career out of being the city’s finance director. Town management was his chosen path. “It’s in my blood,” he says.
A native of Erie, Pennsylvania, Zmyslinski went into the field after earning a master’s degree in political science at Bowling Green State University (and later earned a masters degree in public administration from the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government). At the age of 26 he became the administrator of the villages of Carey and later Minerva, both in Ohio.
Then came along his first opportunity as town manager in Norwich, Conn. As his wife is from the Springfield, Mass. area he took the job.
“You always go back to where your wife’s from,” he said, offering an explanation for moving east. After serving five years in Norwich the next position was in Westerly, where he served as town manager for another five and a half years and still lives today. Then came the call from former mayor Lincoln Chafee.
Peder Schaefer was leaving the city as finance director and Chafee had learned of Zmyslinski from South Kingstown town manager Steve Alfred. Might he be interested in coming to Warwick?
To this day, Zmyslinski appreciates Chafee’s forthrightness. The mayor made clear he planned to run for U.S. Senate, as his father and the incumbent, John Chafee, did not plan on running for re-election. That meant there was no guarantee Zmyslinski would have a job after Chafee left the office of mayor.
“’If you do a good job you may be able to stay, you never know,’” Zmyslinski remembers Chafee telling him.
The senior Chafee died before leaving office and then-governor Lincoln Almond named Lincoln Chafee to complete his father’s term in the Senate. In a special election, then Ward 1 Councilman Scott Avedisian was elected mayor. Zmyslinski stayed.
In those 18 years he’s seen dreams like the preservation of Rocky Point as open space and connecting Green Airport with rail service – the backbone to Warwick City Centre – become reality. He has also faced grilling by the City Council and days when schools and the administration were at odds.
Offsetting difficult financial times was the “perfect storm” of financial outcomes, producing the city’s largest single year surplus of $10 million in the 2016 fiscal year. Zmyslinski called the surplus a combination of situations where the city implemented a revaluation, tax collections were stronger than forecast and the city completed a program of abatements to account for inflated commercial assessments in prior years.
The unfunded liability of Police and Fire Pension I that has been closed is a drag on city finances, but he notes it is being addressed under a long-term program. Similarly, he feels the city needs to address “other post-employment benefits” referred to as OPEB.
As of this June, the unfunded liability of OPEB was projected at $290.7 million.
“It is probably the biggest issue facing the city,” he said.
“We have to start someplace, the dialogue has started,” he says.
He feels a multi-faceted approach is required, including the creation of an OPEB trust fund and contract revisions for newly hired municipal employees that limit benefits post retirement. He said some changes have already been made but more are needed, and doing it will require the collaborative efforts of the administration and the unions.
On the school side of municipal finances, Zmyslinski sees a bond to commence school upgrades and repairs estimated at $194 million in a study recently released by the state Department of Education as inevitable. The issues are what school projects will be addressed first and the amount of a bond to do that work.
Zmyslinski doesn’t get into differences he may have had with members of the City Council.
“I have great respect for anyone who seeks elective office and holds elective office,” he said.
As for schools, he said, “there is excellent communication with schools. It’s the best it’s ever been.”
Zmyslinski looks forward to his role in West Warwick. He notes the Town Council unanimously selected him and that he looks forward to working with Mark Carruolo, who is the West Warwick Planner and currently serving as interim town manager. Zmyslinski says he worked well with Carruolo when Carruolo served as chief of staff for Avedisian.
Zmyslinski calls West Warwick a “tremendous opportunity.” He said he has a good understanding of the issues, adding that he feels his background “is a good fit for the community.” West Warwick is about a third the size of Warwick. The town budget is $95 million as compared to Warwick’s $305 million. Population of the town is 28,780. Warwick is over 82,000.
Zmyslinski summed up the job he will take on in West Warwick as overseeing “daily operations while carrying out the policy of the Town Council in the most efficient and cost-effective means we can.”
Zmyslinski will take a cut in pay from $130,900 to $118,000. He is eligible to collect a Warwick pension.
Zmyslinski makes a point of acknowledging those he has worked with in Finance and Treasury as well as the mayor. “These professional people work with pride and dedication and truly make it a pleasure to come to work,” he said of his co-workers.
He called Avedisian an “outstanding mayor” who provides leadership while letting city directors do their jobs.