After 18 years, finance director returns to preferred career

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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.

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Bob_Cushman

John Howell writes, “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.”

However for whatever reason Mr. Howell you forgot to mention so many more important fact that allowed the city to “pull through”. The first is that the city began the process of raping the school department of revenue.

Beginning in the 2007/2008 budget the school department budget has been level funded for a decade. In 2010 the Warwick school department local property tax revenue was cut by 5 percent through a special onetime law enacted by the General Assembly. The result, the school budget was reduced from $123,968,468 to $117,769,632 or a total of $6.2 million.

Where did that money go you might ask? You guessed it, straight to the city side of the budget.

In additional to that Mayor Avedisian increased property taxes each and every year to increase city revenue from $63,927,230 in 2007 to $78,525,638 or a $14.5 million increase in revenue.

But wait there’s more. From 2007 through the 2010/11 fiscal year the mayor and the City Council raided the rainy day from to the tune of $15.1 million.

Since 2008 the City side of the budget has been allocated 96.6% of all new property tax dollars collected, that’s $40,067,813. The schools were given the remaining 3.4% or $1,417,637 in new revenue.

And yet there is still more. Even through Ernie is quick to point out municipal union employee cuts and sacrifices, an analysis of the 100 Level employee salary, Ot, sick time, pension and healthcare benefits show that these costs increased in the 3 year period from 2007 to 2009 from $48,281,999 to $50,258,262 or a $1,976,263 increase. Since 2010 to today those same line items have increased by 21 percent or $10.1 million.

In the meantime the percent of the General fund budget allocated to Retired employee expenses has grown from 19% or $18.5 million in 2004 to $41.1 million or 28% of the budget today. To put the 28% number in context, Warwick spends more money on retired employee benefits then the worst City in California San Jose, which is in the midst of a severe financial crisis.

Even though Warwick Taxpayers have paid $445,165,042 in property taxes to pay for retired employee benefits sine 2004, the Actuarial Accrued Liability has reach $1,039,033,669. THAT A BILLION DOLLARS!

And finally, in the last Ten Years, 52% of all new property taxes dollars allocated to the City Budget, that’s $13,610,110, was paid for retired employee expenses. The other 48% or $12,772,206 was spent on active employee benefits. Incredibility, in the last ten year all other spending in the city was cut by $622,312.

Doesn't take a genius to pull through a financial crisis when you forget about every other priority in the city and enact every gimmick and one time revenue infusement to balance your budget.

Thursday, September 28
Bob_Cushman

I would be remiss if I did not offer Ernie congratulations and good luck in your new job.

Thursday, September 28
Reality

The dialogue has started....what a joke.. How could Ernie make such a ridiculous comment ? Warwick's unfunded OPEB liability is over 290 million. Taxpayers have told Mayor Avedisian aka Mayor Giveaway for over ten years something had to be done with this exploding liability. Mayor Giveaway did nothing.

To make matters worse....Avedisian aka Mayor Giveaway put a cap on prescription drugs for city workers ( $300 per individual/ $600 per family per yr.) that cost the taxpayers $4 million last year.

Mayor Giveaway can't help himself....let the taxpayers be damned.

Thursday, September 28
richardcorrente

Dear Bob_Cushman,

I have often referred to you as the most intelligent person in Warwick. Your comment above is another example as to why I feel that way.

However, I think the reason John Howell "forgot to mention" the data you provided is that it simply wasn't part of the topic of his article. My issue with the school budget, as you know, is that the money doesn't go to the "schools". It goes to an organization called "The School Committee" and they spend it any way they please. That also wasn't included in Howell's article, probably for the same reason.

Your points are valid and they should be read by all taxpayers. Maybe they should be a separate Letter-to-the-editor. Maybe a front page article. Give John Howell a call.

I also agree with you and wish Ernie Zmyslinski sincerest best wishes.

Happy Autumn Bob.

Happy Autumn everyone.

Rick Corrente

The Taxpayers Mayor

Thursday, September 28
Thecaptain

Lets look at some facts to determine how educated Mr. Zmyslinski was and how accurate he was when he was required to perform a fiscal note on the new Warwick Fire Department contract. In his fiscal note he states that the 3 year impact of the contract on the line of unused sick pay would be $211,048 during the course of the 3 years. Unfortunately, he was just a tad off. In the last year of the previous contract the unused sick time was $443,000. In the first year of the new contract, the unused sick time was $1,092,421. Now, when I plug these numbers into my abacus the difference appears to be $649,421.

How could our finance director make a miscalculation of $649,421 ?

You may refer to PCR-74-15 for this document. If you would like the unused sick pay report I would be happy to supply it to anyone for your own analysis.

The point is that he cooked the books and 3, maybe 4 residents, read the documents and sounded the alarm. But what did the mayor do? Nothing? Mayor Dumbness Corrente was made aware of these numbers by me, yet at the budget hearings he stood silent, unable to utter a single intelligible word. I cant wait till he runs again. I will be releasing all of his court documents that I have in my possession to show what a tax delinquent scam artist he is.

Thursday, September 28
Thecaptain

Oh yeah, buh bye Ernie, good luck West Warwick.

Thursday, September 28