November 23, 2014
Rate this
Avedisian, Petri square off
Candidates for mayor cover range of issues in hour-long debate
Warwick Beacon photo
READY FOR THE QUESTIONS: Mayor Scott Avedisian and his Republican challenger Stacia Petri wait for the debate held Friday at the Pilgrim Senior Center to begin. Co-sponsored by the Warwick Beacon and WJAR Channel 10, the debate can be viewed by clicking on a link on the Beacon website, warwickonline.com, or going directly to Channel 10.

Taxes, the city’s pension liabilities, school consolidation, the future of Rocky Point and the relationship between the community and T.F. Green Airport were among the topics raised as Republican hopefuls for Warwick mayor squared off in a debate at the Pilgrim Senior Center on Friday.

Mayor Scott Avedisian defended his record, pointing to the city’s improved fiscal standing and the arrival of new business development. Stacia Petri, his challenger, homed in on taxes and spending while calling for greater outreach to citizens.

“There is much more work to be done, and I look forward to the next two years to continue to make Warwick a great place to work, to live and to raise a family,” Avedisian said.

“Warwick needs a new direction,” Petri said. “I’m not here to criticize the mayor. The mayor is an individual. I’m here to discuss his policies, and why I think I have a better vision for the future of Warwick … There’s a very big disconnect between our leadership and the public.”

Discussion of the city’s finances took up much of the debate, which was sponsored by the Warwick Beacon and NBC 10. Petri said she has been “startled” at the rise in the tax rate since she purchased her home in Warwick in 2006.

“The Warwick taxpayers want answers,” she said. “My concern is to hold the line on tax increases … My administration’s hallmark will be openness and transparency.”

At one point, Petri cited a nearly $800 million figure that she said represents the total scope of the existing municipal, school, water and sewer liabilities, including bonded debts as well as pensions and other benefits for retirees. She called for renewed talks with retirees and a “fine-tooth comb” review of the city’s budget while asserting more investment is needed in infrastructure and education.

“There’s no set plan. We have never in 14 years seen any cuts in spending on the side of the city,” she said.

Petri also said the community’s tax situation is hindering business growth.

“I think what is a detriment to the small business owners in Warwick is the 14 years of nonstop tax increases,” she said. “It’s driving the small business owners right out of Warwick, and Rhode Island.”

Avedisian pointed to budget surpluses and investments made in the community during the last 14 years, and said the city’s tax rates compare favorably to those seen in other Rhode Island communities.

“In the time that I have been mayor, we have posted a surplus nearly every year,” he said. “We have paid more than $58 million in school improvements. We have been paying down the city’s bonded indebtedness, and we have invested in our quality of life by protecting and preserving Rocky Point.”

Avedisian said the actual bonded debt figure for the city is $46 million, and that three of the city’s four pension plans are well funded. He said the fourth – the closed plan for police and fire personnel – is “problematic” but has a 40-year funding plan in place.

Citing the city’s adherence to the recommendations made through actuarial reports and audits, the mayor said, “You can create pie charts and graphs at your kitchen table. I would rather have experts in the field come in and give us advice.”

Avedisian also pointed to “real economic development” that has taken place during his tenure, including the creation of City Centre Warwick, the arrival of rail service at the airport, new activity at the Warwick and Rhode Island malls and the arrival of several businesses. Steps are also being taken to invest in City Centre’s infrastructure, he said, while an announcement is expected in the next two weeks for a new project on Jefferson Boulevard.

“I think we can demonstrate that economic development is growing here in the city,” he said.

Regarding the future of Rocky Point, the candidates offered differing perspectives.

Avedisian said while there is some discussion of a dining facility at the site, and a ballot measure regarding docks is set to go before voters, he favors the current plan to utilize the site as a park and walking trails. Many residents are currently using the open part of the land for recreational purposes, he said, and further development has already been largely restricted.

“I think that kind of passive and active use of the property will well suit and will benefit the people of the state of Rhode Island and the city of Warwick for years to come,” he said.

The mayor also applauded the Rocky Point Foundation for its work.

Petri said she has a “greater vision” for Rocky Point, centered on it becoming an attraction geared toward children and families. She said neighbors in the area have expressed a similar sentiment, although there are concerns over safety and vandalism – particularly in the wake of a recent incident in which equipment and office trailer at the site were damaged.

“I think it deserves more. It’s a prime piece of property,” she said. “I would like to see it definitely be a revenue driver.”

When talk turned to the city’s schools – particularly the issue of consolidating buildings as enrollment figures decline – Petri criticized the mayor for what she called a “lack of leadership.”

“The mayor was not present. He was nowhere to be found when all of those families and students were in that auditorium,” she said. “I would have been there. I would have been present.”

Avedisian said he worked with the School Committee as consolidation plans were discussed, but took a cautious approach in terms of advocating for a particular course of action.

“I did not endorse a plan because I didn’t think it was right for me to choose what schools that they should put on the chopping block,” he said.

The mayor also said he is supportive of reinvesting savings realized through consolidation back into the district.

Petri again was critical of Avedisian as the topic turned to Ray McKay, a city employee who was prevented from running for U.S. Senate because of a local rule barring classified employees from seeking elected office.

“We saw the mayor do everything that he could to prevent Ray from running,” Petri said. “I would have done everything in my power [to help him run] … Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Avedisian said the city’s legal team explored the matter and offered McKay a leave of absence to pursue the campaign, which was turned down. At that point, he said, the only means to allow McKay’s candidacy to proceed would have been an ordinance change through the City Council.

“There was very little support on the almost all-Democrat City Council for that,” he said.

Discussion of the city’s relationship with the airport also led to some disagreement between the candidates. Avedisian acknowledged that the relationship has at times been “torturous” for residents and officials, but said it has greatly improved in recent years and is “paying economic dividends.”

“I think that we have seen a major shift in the relationship between the city and the airport,” he said, giving much of the credit to former Rhode Island Airport Corp. board chair Dr. Kathleen Hittner.

Petri said in speaking with homeowners near the airport, there remains “a lot of frustration” over noise and air quality issues. She said she would form a committee to meet with taxpayers who live around the airport and hear their concerns.

“My priority as mayor is definitely to develop relationships … making sure that I never have relationships that are strained,” she said.

Petri, 43, is a native of Smithfield and a Warwick resident since 2006. She currently works for Summit Pharmacy.

Petri said her decision to seek office stems from her attendance at City Council meetings, and the bonds she forged with others from “across all political spectrums.”

“Where we come together is on our fiscal conservatism,” she said.

Petri also reiterated her support for Republican Ken Block in the race for governor – “He’s an outsider just like I am,” she said – and again said she would not support Avedisian in November’s general election if he wins the primary vote.

A Warwick native, Avedisian, 49, is seeking his eighth term as mayor. Prior to winning his current office in a 2000 special election, he served for five terms as a member of the City Council.

Avedisian described himself as a “moderate Republican,” pointing to the consistent Democratic majority on the City Council during his tenure and his ability to bring different constituencies together. He has endorsed Cranston Mayor Allan Fung in the Republican gubernatorial race, but said he has worked with Block in the past and considers both men “very good friends of mine.”

Avedisian also indicated he would support Petri in the general election if she wins the GOP’s nomination.

“I’ve been a Republican since I was a teenager … I have always supported every Republican running for mayor, and would do so even if I lose the primary,” he said.

Friday’s debate was held at 2 p.m. due to scheduling issues. Because of the size of the venue and considerations over fairness, the audience was limited to 10 supporters of each candidate. The debate was also streamed live on NBC 10’s website and is viewable on the Channel 10 website.

The panelists were John Howell, editor and publisher of the Beacon, and NBC 10 political reporter Bill Rappleye. John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, served as the moderator.

The debate can be viewed in its entirety at NBC 10’s website, www.turnto10.com. A link is provided on the Beacon website, www.warwickonline.com.


Comments
11 comments on this item

Petri has no plan. She talks about being very open, but when you aske her a detailed question about an ACTUAL plan she simply blocks you on Facebook. I'm not voting for either but when someone says they are going to be available and blocks you instead of answering a basic question on long term plans I can see she is over her head.

Well being an outsider and not having access to all the data the mayor does it would be hard to come up with a detailed plan. Her plan is to get in and assess the situation and try to make improvements. We all know the easy fix for any financial trouble is to increase the tax rate, which is what Scott had done repeatedly. He hasn't made many tough decisions other than trying to get the schools to close schools. The school committee has it's own issues but their financial track record is much better than on the city side. The sewer authority has to go, they're spending like a drunken sailor and not remediating the largest problem areas polluting the bay. 401k needs to be implemented for city workers asap, not in two years. At least make a cutoff for new hires and anyone with less than say 5 yrs of service in. Otherwise the city workers will be in real trouble when we can meet our financial promises which are not sustainable and never were. It was years of past neglect that got us here and we need immediate changes to get out of it if it's not already too late. We're in a downward spiral.

First things first, I think the Beacon took a neutral stance in writing this article. Next, I BELIEVE IN MY OPINION, Stacia has a plan for Warwick, she will open the books and evaluate each and every line item, check and recheck where savings can be made, she will look at all departments and with open and honest dialog fix what's broken, not just say everything is good. The days of taking money from the reserves to "balance" the budget have to stop. The constant tax increases have to stop. The bickering between the school dept. and the city have to stop. The bullying by the airport has to stop. The pot holes have to stop. Again in my opinion, I don't think the mayor will do any of these things, he hasn't yet !!!, I don't see any other candidate running that can!!. I believe Stacia Petri is the right person at the right time !!!.

The mayor's complete and ongoing abdication of leadership on school consolidation is deplorable. Throughout the various hearings he hid beneath his desk. The future of public education is a transition from pensions to a defined contribution plan, and an abrupt end to tenure. Neither candidate has the fortitude to even hint at this. And when a politician, any politician mentions "investments", guard your wallet.

"Are you better off now than 14 years ago?"

What was your home assessed at 14 years ago, and what is it assessed at now? What was your property tax bill, water bill, sewer bill, tangible property tax bill 14 years ago and now? What was the condition of the roadways and schools 14 years ago and now? What was the budget 14 years ago and now that we've lost about 9,000 residents and God knows how many homes to the airport and foreclosures? How many raises have you gotten and how much has your healthcare costs changed in the last 14 years, both private and public spectre? Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing to the same thing over and over again which leads to failure while expecting a different outcome...There has to be a change from top to bottom and the Mayor's office would be a good start. By the way, I don't work for the city, State, or federal govt. I don't have a pension from any of the above, I'm not on welfare or collecting a disability pension, legit or otherwise, scamming the workman's comp. system or garnering any type of taxpayer supported largess. I'm just an old man who very soon will not be able to afford to live here, which most of my family already figured out. Change is needed to fix these issues.

As a former member of the committee that recommended consolidation (and was subsequently vilified for it) I agree with you, John Stark. I believe he does want consolidation, Lord knows his Chief of Staff did, and because, in the end, the process was so contentious, he withdrew like a turtle into his shell, and offered no cogent opinion one way, or the other. He was more concerned with "feelings" than what needed to be done. Millions of dollars lost, millions of dollars will continue to BE lost on a withering school department, and neither the Mayor (or Ms. Petri) are willing to say anything that might ruffle a few feathers. So, here we are. Crappy schools, mediocre scores, and kids begging on street corner to pay for updated athletic equipment (which should be provided by the district) every Saturday on the corner of Pilgrim Parkway and Warwick Avenue. That's just the Pilgrim kids, who knows what the others are doing, but I would imagine it's about the same. It's unnecessary.

I have major concern about Rocky Point being a revenue driver. I don't know what neighbors she spoke too, but I assure you most of us do NOT want anther amusement park. That space went on the ballot for open space, a restaurant would be fine but when you start talking about gearing it toward children and families and a revenue driver that screams amusement park. An amusement park was already there....It is not for a reason! The majority of the park is owned by the state...so Warwick is not going to benefit from the revenue and we know this how.....hmmm can anyone say Airport Corporation?????

I certainly hope whatever Rocky Point becomes it drives a lot of business to the stores and businesses on west shore road and warwick ave. I hope it has tons of traffic and people come from all over New England to enjoy this beautiful piece of Rhode Island. We are so blessed. I can't wait to share it with the rest of the world.

The Mayor thinks that Warwick residents believe his fantasy of the fiscal condition of the city. Drive down any road and you have to avoid potholes, school children have to attend schools that are falling apart and taxes keep going up. The mayor couldn't even balance his budget this year in spite of a 3 yr. wage freeze for city workers. Yes.....Warwick's savings account was depleted by $3.6 million.

The Mayor is a fraud.

Maggie I'm sorry but you and others that just want the park to simply walk on is ridiculous. This is part of the reason are state is slumping so bad. We don't do anything to attract others or to better our own situation. What out of state resident is going to want to walk the path? Let's get real! The park should be used as some sort of revenue driver. It's that simple. We have beautiful shore access, and excellent views as well as plenty of space. I get the fact you think an amusement park has already failed, so why go back to that? But there are other ways to make money from the land without having to fill it full of rides. We need to think outside the box, take our time, and try not to do whatever fits the next election cycle. I don't want to be told the public has input, I want our elected officials to actually listen to what we are saying. Many people want this land used to raise some type of revenue to lower the taxes the mayor has increased the last 14 years. Maybe the residents of Warwick Neck are ok paying it, but the rest of us aren't!

Scall24, I agree 100%. We paid for it, and we're going to be paying for it for 30 years. RP needs to have something that attracts enough people to drive business on Rt. 117. Leaving it off the tax rolls so the wealthy people on the neck can have a nice place to walk why we pay for it is preposterous. RP must bring people into Warwick from around New England. I can see soccer, softball and baseball fields with 30-40 teams playing in tournaments on weekends, staying in our hotels, shopping in our stores, eating at our restaurants. A summer music series would be great. Start the week with bluegrass/folk Sundays, Jazz Monday's Blues Tuesdays, Symphony Wednesdays, Country Thursdays, classic rock Fridays and Finish it off with heavy metal Saturday night.

Naturally, a facility would be there to sell beer and food. Four year agreements could be set up between the vendor and the state. Rocky Point has the possibility to be awesome.

You must be logged in to post a comment. Click here to log in.
Welcome to RIjobs.com
Copyright © 2014, Beacon Communications. Powered by: Creative Circle Advertising Solutions, Inc.