A game of ping-pong has come to an end – for now, as the City Council sustained, Monday, the mayor’s veto of an ordinance requesting that the health care and pension actuary appear before the council.
Ward 9 Councilman Steven Merolla, who sponsored the legislation, said during an interview Tuesday he plans to bring the issue up again.
He also hopes to get some answers about the issue from the Pew Charitable Trusts Center, a Pennsylvania-based non-profit agency that provides analytical approaches to improve public policy, inform the public and stimulate civic life. The council unanimously approved a resolution Monday that asks Pew to appear before the council to discuss its findings and reports.
As for the ordinance, newly elected Council President Donna Travis opposed it, and Ward 2 Councilman Tom Chadronet and Ward 8 Councilman Joseph Gallucci abstained. The rest of the council, including Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon, Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur, Ward 7 Councilman Charles “C.J.” Donovan and Ward 9 Councilman Steven Merolla voted in favor.
Ward 1 Councilman Steven Colantuono and Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson were not in attendance.
“It’s one thing to try and solve the unfunded pension and health care problem for the city of Warwick, it’s another thing not even to be able to talk about it or have a dialogue,” Merolla said. “I’m going to continue to push this dialogue about pensions and unfunded health care when I can. That’s why I put in the resolution for Pew to come before us.”
This wasn’t the first time the council voted on legislation calling for the actuaries to appear before the council. An ordinance was approved in September on a 5-4 vote, and again in November on a 6-3 vote, but Mayor Scott Avedisian vetoed it each time, noting in recent articles in the Warwick Beacon that it’s costly to fly the actuaries in from out-of-state to make a presentation to the council, as well as the fact that actuary studies are already being done.
As reported last week, since the Pew Charitable Trusts Center is looking at options for the funding of the Fire and Police 1 pension plan, with a projected unfunded liability of $242 million, Avedisian would like to complete that process before opening fresh discussions. The mayor is interested in seeing what they suggest.
Still, Merolla, who has been referring to the 2011 actuarial reports, says the combined liabilities of pensions and health care to retirees are in rough shape, and believes Avedisian is attempting to hide the truth. He said Warwick’s unfunded liabilities are approaching $1 billion, and can’t understand why the mayor continues to veto the ordinance when a majority of the council favors it.
“I think it was hovering around $650 million, but we also have unfunded liabilities on bonds and things like that, which push us up to close to $1 billion, or $800 million,” Merolla said. “He said that he would bring the actuaries back last year and he didn’t. All of this could be avoided if he could tell us the date that they are coming. Either he’s going to keep his word or he’s not.”
But Avedisian said Merolla has been told in the past that the actuaries will be available to the council when they are in Rhode Island, and has agreed with the administration's position on that.
“The fact of the matter is that the city's actuary, GRS, has not been in Rhode Island since last spring, and now Councilman Merolla apparently wants to legislate their appearance,” said Avedisian.
He went on to say that Merolla is “confused by this issue,” and is lumping pension liabilities and other post employment benefits (OPEB) as if they are the same when they are two “distinctly different issues.” According to City Finance Director Ernest Zmyslinski, the other post employment benefits unfunded accrued liability for the city as of June 30, 2012 was $223,593,412.
Avedisian said Merolla’s most recently failed legislation would have had the city paying pension actuary costs out of the health care budget.
“That is totally inappropriate,” Avedisian said.
Additionally, Merolla and Solomon are in the process of drafting a resolution regarding the Pew Trust Foundation but were mum on details because it is still in the works.
Merolla said he thought it was strange that the council voted to sustain the mayor’s veto but then unanimously voted to approve the Pew resolution.
“Why would you not override a veto and the same night vote for Pew to come give us their impression of our pensions?” asked Merolla. “Why not actually invite the people that we’re paying to do this?”
In terms of the mayor, Merolla thinks he has the answer as to why he doesn’t want the actuaries to appear before the council and citizens in a public setting: because he “can’t control the flow of the information.”
“When the council members ask questions and the actuaries give an answer that he may or may not be prepared for, he doesn’t like that,” said Merolla. “You can use your own brush to paint how rosy the picture is to your benefit.”
Avedisian said that’s not the case. Rather, he said he has been up front in presenting the status of the city's pension plans and is pushing for local pension reform.
“I am fully aware of the challenges of the Police/Fire 1 Plan, and am continually looking for ways to improve the plan,” he said. “However, I would also like to remind Mr. Merolla that the city's other three pension plans have been classified as ‘Tier 1’ plans – the highest performing plans in the state. Warwick is the only community in the state to have that distinction."
As for the Pew resolution, Avedisian said all of the information Merolla is seeking is available to him upon request as an elected official and also available to the public on the city website.
“However, it appears that Councilman Merolla would prefer to try and pass superfluous legislation when the information he seeks is already readily available to anyone who's looking for it,” Avedisian said.
Further, Avedisian said that General Treasurer Gina Raimondo invited Pew to Rhode Island, and he gladly accepted their offer to look at the Police/Fire 1 Pension System, as he is “always looking for ways to improve the city's pension systems. If Mr. Merolla wants to meet with the Pew Foundation, I would suggest that he contact the general treasurer to see if she can facilitate his request, as I have no authority over the Pew Foundation.”
In other business, the council held a handful of items, including two ordinances regarding unregistered vehicles in residential areas, and another relative to amending Warwick’s absentee landlord registration legislation, which will be discussed at the Feb. 11 meeting.
They also held an ordinance for Jan. 23 that would require venders to detail any city employee who is on their payroll. Solomon’s resolution to abolish the Warwick Sewer Authority was also held for Feb. 11.