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.