State of Ward 3 meeting focuses on airport, schools, taxes
For years, any meeting about the airport has brought out the complaints and the questions, but not last Thursday.
Instead, Kelly Fredericks, who assumed the role of president and CEO of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) earlier this month, was greeted with scattered polite applause when he appeared before about 50 people at the Pilgrim Senior Center. He confessed to being new on the job and not knowing a whole lot about the issues before he turned the microphone over to two RIAC staff members. They provided updates on the voluntary home acquisition program, residential soundproofing, safety area improvements to the shorter of the airport’s two runways and the extension of the longer runway. They also covered the relocation of the Winslow Park playing fields to airport-owned property abutting the Lakeshore Drive neighborhood west of Warwick Pond.
There were a few questions about eligibility for soundproofing and new information that the program was being expanded to include units at the Lockwood condominium complex. No one complained about aircraft noise, or early morning flights. There were no questions why houses on one side of the street were eligible for the voluntary acquisition program and those on the other weren’t.
And, while there were questions about what measures could be taken to prevent people from cutting through the Lakeshore neighborhood rather than using an access road off Airport Road, this was not the hostile gathering of some prior airport meetings.
But the airport, which is in the heart of the city and Ward 3, was not the only issue as Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson provided constituents with a “State of Ward 3 Address.”
In the course of the evening, following a greeting by Mayor Scott Avedisian, representatives from the Police Department, Warwick Sewer Authority, Tax Assessors and the School Committee also spoke and fielded questions.
Community Police Officers Nelson Carreiro and Daniel Maggiacomo highlighted police activity, urging people to report suspicious activity to patrol officers when it occurs, rather than waiting to pass it along to officers when they see them.
“Go through the normal routes to make a report,” said Maggiacomo.
School Committee member Karen Bachus brought up the issue of the possibility of closing Gorton Junior High School, as recommended by a study committee.
“We haven’t been briefed on it,” she said, adding that, before the committee takes action, there would be two public hearings.
John Kennedy, who is a regular at City Council meetings, asked what schools would be looking for in terms of an increase in funding. He didn’t get an answer, although the department has presented the committee with a proposed budget calling for a $1.3 million increase in spending and a $3.8 million increase in city funding.
“We always look for an increase,” said Bachus, “but we’ve been told we’re not going to get one.”
Kennedy persisted. He wanted to know what had become of a surplus reported in the last year.
“We were told the money was spent. We’re still trying to get to the bottom of that,” Bachus answered.
There were also questions about why Richard D’Agostino, who was acting superintendent, was named superintendent when the committee’s intention is to advertise the post this fall and asked what schools gained in exchange for giving WISE employees a 1 percent raise.
Bachus said the committee felt D’Agostino was doing a good job and, if given the title, could do more.
“It was 1 percent,” she said of the raises. “We were looking for labor peace. We worked out a contract that didn’t have to make further concessions.”
“Are we here to bang people over the head and say they are not deserving of a raise?” she asked. Bachus was also concerned with the time and money spent on teacher evaluations and what it takes away from teaching.
Committee member Eugene Nadeau downplayed teacher evaluations, saying he doesn’t believe teachers should have a “worry in the world that they’re going to be let go.”
Taxes were also in the spotlight.
Tax Assessor Ken Mallette offered no hope of tax relief by growth in the tax rolls. He said growth amounted to less than 1 percent. He pointed out that the exemption for senior citizens has increased by $2,000 to $12,000 and that the council is looking to double the exemption for veterans from $2,000 to $4,000. Vella-Wilkinson said Warwick is “at the bottom of the state” with its veterans exemption and that state legislation is pending on the change.
Mallette also touched on the city’s plan to implement a lockbox system so that tax and utility payments made by check are deposited within two days.
“Do not play the float,” he warned.
“What are you doing to hold taxes?” Kennedy asked.
He went on to raise the issue of Fire Department overtime, pointing out that the department has consistently exceeded its overtime budget by as much as $2 million.
“That’s the only department to have a problem. If that happened in the private sector, he [the chief] would be gone.”
Vella-Wilkinson said overtime is driven by minimum manning requirements set by contract and that, with the addition of personnel, those costs will go down.
Citizens Michelle Komar and Roger Durand questioned why minimum manning requirements couldn’t be changed legislatively or because of technological advances.
Vella-Wilkinson was not ready to hear it.
“With 20 years in the military, I firmly believe in minimum manning,” she said.
Janine Burke, executive director of the Warwick Sewer Authority, was also questioned on costs and the steady increase in user fees. She said the increase in fees is designed to cover increased operational costs as well as pay the city back what it owes on construction bonds. She said the rates would “level off” over five years.
“It’s become price prohibitive for water and sewer,” said Durand.
The meeting did not have the contentious feel of some council meetings, especially budget hearings, where many of those in attendance pose similar questions.
Durand asked if it is true that Mallette plans to retire this year.
Mallette said it is.
Durand praised him for his contribution to the city, saying he has always responded to questions and handled himself professionally. He called Mallette a true public servant.