Recording the past, charting the future
Mayor Scott Avedisian delivered the following speech during inaugural ceremonies Tuesday, Jan. 8 at City Hall:
A few days ago, I was speaking with someone who asked me, “What is there left for you to do?” And certainly, at first glance, it would seem that most major issues affecting our residents and business community have been resolved … some of them in the time since we all last gathered here in Council Chambers.
The more than decade-long debate over airport expansion has been resolved and the Rhode Island Airport Corporation is moving forward with safety improvement and runway expansion plans as they continue to work with the city on several remaining issues. The long-awaited InterLink is open. In November, we welcomed JetBlue to T.F. Green, which is the airline’s diamond, or 75th, location. Warwick’s hotels, restaurants, retail establishments and other businesses will certainly benefit from JetBlue’s presence. And, as the economy continues to rebound, those ancillary benefits will also hopefully spark local job growth beyond just the airport gates.
Warwick Station District
In January, the City Council approved the administration’s Warwick Station Development District master plan and companion zoning amendments. This plan, which is guiding re-use and re-development of 95 acres surrounding the airport, calls for the creation of a new state growth center and a sustainable, mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented community. The area will capitalize on the tremendous multi-modal opportunities in Warwick to promote economic development, job growth and re-vitalization of the area. We are presently working in cooperation with the state to develop a design manual and a marketing/place-making strategy. Infrastructure improvements are also underway. All three of these components are being supported by over $1 million in grants.
Already, we are seeing exciting new developments in and around the district: The Iron Works Tavern, located across from the station, is bustling, and, thanks to owners Joe and Lori Piscopio, offers a tangible and attractive link between our city’s past and present. Salve Regina University’s Center for Adult Education has opened on Metro Center Boulevard, providing residents an opportunity to further their education. The Ocean State Theater Company has transformed the former Verizon building on Jefferson Boulevard into a terrific performing arts facility. Their arrival here has had a direct job-growth benefit, is already positively affecting local restaurants and other businesses and is a wonderful addition to Warwick’s arts and cultural base.
I am proud that our visionary, creative Station District Master Plan has earned a 2012 Rhode Island American Planning Association Outstanding Comprehensive Plan Award as well as a 2012 Outstanding Smart Growth Policies and Plans Award. I would like to publicly congratulate Planning Director Bill DePasquale and Senior Planner Dan Geagan, who have worked tirelessly for more than 14 years with a multitude of stakeholders on this plan to re-establish the area as one characterized by a truly intermodal, sustainable community.
In the past two years, we have also seen the re-opening of our shoreline property at Rocky Point. Many of you here today were with us as we celebrated that milestone. Thanks to the efforts of many dedicated parties, the park is now enjoyed by residents for walking, clamming, fishing, bird watching, biking and other activities. A new walking/biking path also opened in October, expanding pedestrian access to Rocky Point from Warwick Neck Avenue. Special thanks to our Congressional delegation, NOAA, the state Department of Environmental Management, and Mark Hayward and the U.S. Small Business Administration. I must also publicly thank Shaw’s and Pepsi for their donation and the Rocky Point Foundation for their continued support. Please join me in recognizing the members of our Public Works and Planning departments, who really threw their hearts and souls into making the park an attractive, welcoming place.
I would also note that this project earned the inaugural Rhode Island American Planning Association Award for Outstanding Public Space Project.
Governor, like you and so many Rhode Islanders, I am anxiously awaiting the federal court’s approval for the purchase of the remainder of the property. The city is looking forward to working with Director Coit and other stakeholders to restore and revitalize the rest of this iconic property now, and for future generations. And, Governor, I know that you will join me in being justly proud of the fact that the Chafee and Avedisian administrations have preserved more open space than every administration before us combined.
With the City Council’s support, new pension regulations took effect for employees hired after July 1. These reforms increase retirement age, reduce the annual pension benefit multiplier, reduce disability pensions after what would have been 25 years of service, adjusts how public safety pensions are calculated and increases minimum retirement age and years of service.
As some of you are aware, the city administers four pension plans. Of those, three are ranked in Tier One by the state; the only three plans in that tier. We welcome the offer of technical assistance from the PEW Center and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation for our problematic fourth plan, Police/Fire I. This analysis provides another opportunity to explore viable, reasonable options to pay down unfunded pension liability.
In July – after months of sometimes arduous negotiations – my administration reached new, three-year contracts with our municipal, police and fire unions.
Contracts that were signed in July require significant sacrifices from our union and management employees alike, including increased contributions toward health care and other provisions. Perhaps the most significant piece of the contract is the fact that there are no wage increases for the next three years. These are the first contracts, dating back to at least 1989, that do not provide for any raises in the life of a contract.
This is particularly noteworthy for two reasons: it shaves $32 million from our unfunded pension liability. And, despite a very difficult economy and prolonged recession, when many of our employees themselves may be affected by unemployment in their households, all three contracts were overwhelmingly approved.
As I mentioned, contract talks were at times very difficult, and there are several people who must be recognized for their perseverance: Fire Union President Bill Lloyd and his executive board, Police Sergeant and FOP President Peter Johnston and Sergeant Erick Falcofsky, and Jean Bouchard, president of the Municipal Union. And, on the administration side, Colonel McCartney, Deputy Chief Babula, Fire Chief Armstrong and Assistant Chief Cooley, my chief of staff, Mark Carruolo, City Solicitor Peter Ruggeiro and Assistant City Solicitor Diana Pearson.
Please join me in a round of applause to thank our union and management employees alike for their willingness, always, to work with us in the best interest of our residents. And for their continued dedication and commitment to provide exceptional services, even as we ask every department to do more with fewer resources.
Police and Fire grants
In the past year, our Fire and Police Departments, with the support of our Congressional delegation, have secured grants to help them do their jobs more efficiently, safely and cost-effectively. The Fire Department has received nearly $5.2 million, including a three-year, $3 million grant in funding in the past year for additional personnel, radio system upgrades, a new aerial ladder truck, fire prevention, and medical equipment, including new AEDs. The Police Department has received well in excess of $600,000 for equipment and programs.
As many of you know, the former Potowomut Elementary School has been closed for several years. A committee charged with developing a plan for the best re-use of the site has been meeting regularly for the last several months and is in the planning process to use the building and land to house a fire station and community police unit, to provide recreational opportunities for the neighborhood, and to use a portion of the property to produce revenue for the city.
As I complete nearly 13 years as mayor, there are those who will say that this administration is tired. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I am approaching this new term looking at the great opportunities ahead of us, with renewed enthusiasm and vigor.
A short time ago, we heard Cora sing, “Lord of all eagerness, Lord of all faith, whose strong hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe, be there at our labours, and give us, we pray, your strength in our hearts, Lord, at the noon of the day.”
Today, my administration remains eager, strong, and ready to continue to build on the foundation we began more than a decade ago. With skilled and faithful department directors and employees, and with the support of our business community, non-profit partners and citizens, I am ready to undertake several initiatives in the coming term:
Two years ago, I made a pledge that any tax increase would be at least a quarter of a percent underneath the state mandated cap. We did it. We who live and work in Warwick are fortunate to be part of a community that offers expansive services, good programs and facilities, like the ice rinks and pools, that are not available in every Rhode Island city and town. That is the result of a collaborative effort among and between elected and appointed school and city officials.
With this in mind, I will introduce a city budget that would set the municipal tax cap at one-fourth of 1 percent lower than the state property tax cap legislation allows. For example, if the state cap is 4 percent, the city of Warwick’s budget would not increase by more than 3.75 percent of the previous budget’s levy.
With the help of a dedicated financial team – with Finance Director Ernie Zmyslinski at the helm – we have kept this city in stable financial health. With a modest increase of 1.58 percent this year, Warwick ranked 19th out of Rhode Island’s 39 municipalities. And, of the eight cities in Rhode Island, Warwick was the third lowest, with only two distressed communities, which receive supplemental state aid, lower.
In fact, a news article today analyzed municipal requests to exceed the state’s property cap since FY09. The study found that municipalities across the state have sought approval to do so 33 times – some communities multiple times. Warwick, I am proud to say, was not among them.
Tonight, I again propose that the School Department partner with the Community College of Rhode Island on an enhanced and expanded continuing adult education program. CCRI is a well-respected institution with a broader curriculum and greater flexibility in class scheduling, including online courses, than the School Department is currently able to provide.
The partnership I envision would use the federal funds that are allocated each year to the School Department to allow adult students to attend classes at CCRI free of charge, or for a nominal fee.
This would not cost the School Department, but would provide greater educational and training opportunities for those adults who want to start new careers or enhance their existing education for job advancement.
With the cost of Rhode Island’s public college tuitions rising more than 65 percent over the past decade, this would open the door of opportunity for more Warwick residents to pursue higher education.
Despite the recession, we have seen economic growth in Warwick. The InterLink has brought vast opportunities – opportunities our Planning Department and the Office of Tourism, Culture and Development will continue to pursue aggressively this term.
Our tourism and hospitality industry continues to do well. Many restaurants have opened this year, and a number of companies have expanded existing facilities or relocated here. Warwick is the place several retailers have chosen as their first Rhode Island location. A number of residents have used job losses as opportunities for new careers, and we’re seeing a variety of small businesses opening here as a result.
We have always had a good relationship with Lauren Slocum and the Central Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce. We continue to work closely to promote the small business community and the many national and regional retailers that call Warwick home. Our department directors have been speaking more frequently with the Chamber in an effort to further ensure that businesses’ concerns are being heard and addressed.
I have established a commission to examine the city’s existing licensing process and to make recommendations on how best to streamline it to make it more convenient for companies to operate. That process is ongoing, and we will roll out a new online licensing and permitting process soon.
Quality of life
With great municipal services, dedicated employees, vibrant neighborhood associations, active volunteers, a strong business community, and committed non-profit agencies, it’s no wonder Warwick was again named one of the top 100 best places to live in America.
In the coming months, we will build on the work we have done with the Kent HeartSafe Foundation and ER Card to assure that our residents are taking proactive steps to ensure their good health.
Comprehensive Plan Update
The city is presently developing a new Comprehensive Plan, which will guide development and initiatives in Warwick for the next 20 years. 21st Century Warwick: City of Livable Neighborhoods is based on a public participation process that brings people together to shape the city’s future. Already, we have held nine ward-based meetings, a community-wide open house and topical meetings focused on the environment and transportation. In addition, there have been presentations to the Rotary Club and a presentation to a business/economic development focus group. An online survey elicited 700 responses. We are very excited with the community’s participation so far, because it will ensure that the Plan is one that is truly representative of a variety of stakeholders.
The plan will be organized into a series of “elements,” or topic areas, including Natural Resources, Historic and Cultural Resources, Open Space and Recreation, Housing and Neighborhoods, Economic Development, Transportation and Circulation, Services and Facilities, and Land Use. A new element, Resilience, will focus on adaptation to increased hazards from flooding and other potential impacts of climate change. The plan, slated for completion this fall, will include an Implementation section that will identify actions and resources needed to implement the plan’s recommendations.
Tonight, there is someone whose absence we feel. As many of you know, Bob Shapiro, our beloved former Superintendent of Schools, passed away this fall. Bob was an educator in every sense of the word, a true gentleman who inspired many of us in this room to achieve more than we believed possible. His dedication to his students and this community is legendary. Please join me in applauding Bob’s half-century of service to the people of Warwick. And may I ask his widow, Audrey, to stand and be recognized.
I have spent over two decades in public service to the city of Warwick, and deeply appreciate the continued support and friendship I have received over those years. It has been an honor to serve the citizens of my hometown, working side-by-side with some of the most dedicated and hardworking people I’ve been privileged to meet.
Thankfully, even as we struggle through uncertain and difficult times, our city remains strong, vibrant and deeply supportive of those in need. Our citizens and business people make daily investments in our community, through volunteerism, participation in civic, non-profit, and faith organizations, working as mentors for our children, offering support to neighbors in need, and finding ways to offer financial and emotional support to people experiencing unthinkable tragedies.
The people of our community continue to inspire me. With true and caring hearts, they work cooperatively to accomplish wonderful things for our city and state. They remind us of all the good that exists here. For this, I am grateful.
There is already much speculation about the future. This much is set in stone: We have much work to do. Let’s get to work.