By JOHN HOWELL Mayor Frank Picozzi gets to City Hall by the time most people are pouring themselves a cup of coffee and getting the kids ready for school, so he was surprised when a woman pulled up to him in the parking lot and asked where she could find
Mayor Frank Picozzi gets to City Hall by the time most people are pouring themselves a cup of coffee and getting the kids ready for school, so he was surprised when a woman pulled up to him in the parking lot and asked where she could find Municipal Court. It wasn’t even 7:30.
Picozzi didn’t have the answer for sure, but he thought she could pay her fine at the city clerk’s office. He passed along the information, pointing out that the office wouldn’t be open for another hour. The woman confessed it would be a first time she’d visited Municipal Court. She then asked if Picozzi worked for the city. He said he did and he, too, was being introduced to a lot of first times.
“Well, what do you do?” he remembers her asking. He told her and she was embarrassed.
“I didn’t recognize you with a mask,” she stammered.
In his first week on the job, Picozzi said he’s found that former Mayor Joseph Solomon pretty much “left the city on cruise control.”
“Nobody has been minding the store for months,” he said.
Among the issues he’s taken on are the reopening of McDermott Pool; a settlement with the Rhode Island Interlocal Risk Management Trust on the insurance claim for the burst frozen water pipe that forced the closure of the City Hall Annex three years ago; and a lease agreement with the Warwick Center for the Arts that has been in limbo for at least three years and, if not resolved, threatens the loss of a Champlin Foundation grant to improve access to the city-owned Kentish Guard Armory.
These issues and much more surfaced Tuesday, when Picozzi granted a reporter’s request to shadow him for the day.
First thing on his calendar, which members from management information systems, or MIS, were able to get on his cell phone by mid-day, was an 8:30 meeting with his administrative staff. Everyone was ready by the appointed time, but the mayor was tied up on the phone. It was starting to look like the day was off to a rough start and everything had to get pushed back.
One thing was for certain. Picozzi wouldn’t miss a ribbon cutting at 10:35 a.m.
“I love Five Guys. They have the best fries in the world. You’re in for a treat,” he declared when press secretary Elizabeth Tufts gave a briefing on the day’s events, including the ribbon cutting. He planned on lunch at Five Guys, which has opened its second Warwick store on Airport Road near Hoxsie Four Corners.
Chief of Staff Sue Nahabedian Ayrassian informed the group of the city’s newly implemented workplace COVID policy requiring visitors to answer a series of questions about their health and if they have been in contact with anyone who has tested positive. Visitors are required to sign in and provide contact information.
Picozzi said he wants to issue some proclamations, “as soon as I figure out how to make proclamations.” The staff took notes. He disclosed that the former Randall Holden School, which now houses personnel and community development offices, had run out of heating oil and he had had to place an emergency acquisition order Monday night so the offices would be warm by that morning.
Betty Smith, who fields calls to the mayor’s office, had nothing pressing to report other than “a few sanitation issues.” Bruce Keiser, who is heading the Planning Department, gave a brief update on the conversion to LED streetlights, which he expects will happen over the next nine months. Picozzi is familiar with lights. He mentioned that the LED lumens can be adjusted so they are bright on major roads and “warmer in neighborhoods.”
Picozzi’s immediate frustration is McDermott Pool, which closed with the pandemic shutdown last March. Other pools have opened, but fearful of the spread of the virus, Solomon kept the McDermott closed.
“I can’t find anyone in charge of the pool,” he said. He said no one seems know anything about the pumps or what it’s going to take to reopen it. Later in the day he connected with James Dorney, who ran the pool and rink and was forced out of his job over two years ago.
Wednesday morning, Dorney joined DPW Director Eric Earls and Holly Weber from the Recreation Department for a tour of the pool’s inner workings. They found one of the three burners, which heat the building as well as pool water, out of commission and one of two pumps in desperate need of maintenance.
Dorney said whether running the pool or the rink, he favored on the side of having outside contractors who specialize in the work perform maintenance rather than waiting for equipment to break down and calling for their help. Dorney doesn’t see returning to the city, but said he is happy to help out.
Earls and Weber are following up in obtaining contractor assessments of the work needed to reopen the pool.
At the morning staff meeting, Nahabedian Ayrassian suggested she set up a call with soon to be governor Daniel McKee this Friday or next Monday. That was fine with Picozzi. She reported a number of people are looking to meet with him “one-on-one.”
Picozzi’s immediate focus is on visiting different parts of the city.
Recently he and staff members walked to the nearby armory that has been home of the Warwick Center for the Arts since 1977. When Solomon remodeled the closed Buttonwoods Community Center for municipal offices that were quickly relocated to the former Greene School when the annex was forced to close because of the burst water pipe, he thought the armory could house the city personnel office.
When personnel offices were relocated to Randall Holden School, Solomon said rental of the armory should be comparable to area rates. A lease was never finalized. The center continued to operate from the armory, but it stood to lose a Champlin Foundation grant without a lease. The grant is to make improvements to building accessibility, including the steep front stairs.
Picozzi has no issue in renewing the lease, which he said City Council President Steve McAllister will bring up for council approval. The solicitor is presently reviewing it. Later reached at the ribbon cutting for Five Guys, McAllister was delighted to resolve the issue.
“You want to have an arts center. Every city needs an arts center,” he said. Asked about the terms of the lease, McAllister said he thought it was a dollar a year.
Also on Picozzi’s calendar for Tuesday was a meeting with Col. Brian Wheeler of the Rhode Island National Guard to review possible Warwick COVID testing sites; a meeting with Warwick Library Director Jana Stevenson; and a walk-through of the former annex building.
But first came the Five Guys and a highlight of the morning. As members of the City Council and Central Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce lined up upside for the ribbon cutting, co-founders and managing partners of Hyde Park Ventures and franchisees Jody Goehring and Greg Vasey gave Picozzi and his wife, Kim, a tour of the establishment.
Both Goehring and Vasey were high on the location, although a number of businesses have failed to make a success of the location. Since opening, they have had an especially strong take-out business that Goehring attributed in part to pent up demand from the pandemic. He also talked about their system of handling orders, including a tracking program projecting when the customer will arrive and once at the store where they are parked. This allows for Five Guys to deliver orders hot and fresh from preparation.
Aaron Mackisey, office manager, took the opportunity to get contact information and suggested the city could be helpful in coordinating traffic control with Dave’s Fresh Marketplace across Airport Road, which frequently has an off-duty officer directing traffic.
In a break between appointments, Picozzi said he has filled all department director posts with the exception of economic development and tourism, which he doesn’t see as a priority because of the pandemic and its impact on tourism. He said that he expects Brad Connor to step into the job of chief of police – a move approved by the Board of Public Safety Tuesday night – at a ceremony on Jan. 18.
He called his new job “kind of surreal … not working in the cold is a big plus.” Nonetheless, he aims to be out there with Department of Public Works crews when it snows. He said he has driven a plow for decades and wants “to pitch in” with some cleanup work when the occasion comes.
He’s found his effort to open City Hall somewhat thwarted by the weather. On entering his office after inauguration, Picozzi raised the blinds. With clear skies Tuesday, they were lowered half way and that didn’t appear to be enough. The sun was blinding. He’s doing away with the three computer screens Solomon had on his desk for a laptop.
At the library, Stevenson gave Picozzi and his staff a tour of the building, lingering in the Children’s Library to marvel at the achievements as recorded on one wall by how many books – 1,000 in one case – kindergarteners had read. Stevenson didn’t waste an opportunity to outline the issues she is facing, including a service elevator that has been out of service for about three years, a roof leak, HVAC maintenance and staffing issues. She said there are currently eight vacant positions that are budgeted but were left unfilled under the Solomon administration.
Her concern is that in order to meet the maintenance of effort to retain state funding of $779,000, the library must be open a minimum of 64 hours weekly, but that can’t be done with current staffing.
Picozzi questioned what key positions she needed to fill in order to meet the required 64 hours and at what rates would those jobs be paid. Stevenson thought with another librarian, the library could reopen on Sundays, although that still would be shy of the 64 hours.
Stevenson also emphasized her goal to bring the library to the community. Reopening branch libraries – Conimicut has reopened but Apponaug and Norwood remain closed – is part of it. Stevenson is looking to expand library services even further and has ideas to engage the community.
Last on Picozzi’s list of visits for the day was the Annex Building. Joined by Keiser, Nahabedian Ayrassian, Tufts and Mackisey, he found the building basically untouched since records and furniture were pulled from it in the wake of the flood, which was restricted to the Planning Department and the Assessors office below. As part of the cleanup, floor tiles and carpeting was removed. Ceiling titles were missing in places, framed pictures leaned against the walls and errant pieces of furniture, including desks, chairs and cabinets, looked to be untouched since staff left the building.
“That’s Billy’s,” said Keiser, pointing a high-backed leather chair that was once was the seat of City Planner William DePasquale, who went on to become Solomon’s chief of staff before retiring in December. The group poked through plans and records left behind when staff abruptly left the building.
While it all looked relatively easy to put back together and reopen, Keiser said the building would fail to meet code because in adding on to what was originally a fire and police station, supporting beams had been compromised. He also mentioned the HVAC and wiring.
Picozzi agreed with the conclusion that it would be best to demolish the building and build new. The questions are: what will it cost and where is the money?
Picozzi was surprised, and pleased, when Keiser said he is researching a $5.5 million building bond that Warwick voters approved but was never issued. The mayor is anxious to get more information on the bond, which none of those present could remember being on the ballot.
Like so much in his first week on the job, Picozzi is unearthing things that he never imagined. As he said, “it’s surreal.”