To the Editor:
Warwick's new mayor, Joseph Solomon, must feel as if he just replaced the captain of the Titanic. Republican Scott Avedisian, the former mayor, steered the city directly into a fiscal iceberg, then jumped onto the first available lifeboat, taking a six-figure position with the state.
Avedisian became the longest-serving mayor in Warwick history by dismantling municipal and educational services while systematically redistributing hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for unsustainable retirement benefits for his special-interest supporters.
Over a 15-year period, retirement benefits have grown from 19 percent to 28 percent of the budget. To put that number in prospective, Warwick’s ratio is worse than that of San Jose, which has the worst ratio in California. A Washington Post headline about its woes -- “In San Jose, generous pensions for city workers come at expense of nearly all else" -- could have been written about Warwick.
Over the last 10 years, nearly every new tax dollar and millions from the rainy day fund were allocated to expenses for active and retired employees, leaving nothing for everything else.
The impact to social service programs has been devastating. Programs for after-school youth, family services, battered woman and the homeless were eliminated years ago. The senior services budget has been cut 40 percent. Parks and recreation cut 66 percent. Road repair, infrastructure repair and capital improvement budgets all slashed.
The school budget's allocation today is lower than in 2010. While hundreds of teaching and support staff positions have been eliminated and multiple schools have been closed, city employment has increased and spending has soared to record levels.
A decade ago, the ratio of school-to-city spending was 64-36 percent. The ratio today stands at 53-47. Under this dramatic shift, the city budget received $40 million in new tax dollars while schools only got $1.4 million.
Avedisian was the only municipal leader to take advantage of a onetime state law stripping $6 million from schools and transferring it to the city budget.
Warwick schools remain the only district in the state paying for capital improvements out of their operating budget, as the former mayor reneged on his promise to fund building repairs. Avedisian froze millions in voter-approved bonding. As a result of years of neglect, schools are crumbling.
A $600 annual out-of-pocket cap on employee family prescription drug benefits, labeled as “unheard-of” by the city's health-care expert, is costing taxpayer $4 million annually. Unfunded liabilities associated with free lifetime health care for city employees and their spouses has reached $300 million. For the first time ever, Warwick’s total actuarial accrued liability has exceeded $1 billion.
Avedisian's fiscal 2019 budget includes multi-million-dollar raises for police and municipal employees. Millions more are budgeted for increased pension and health-care costs. After the settling of the school teacher’s contact, millions more are required to pay for salary and benefit perks.
Yet for the first time ever as mayor, Avedisian submitted a budget with no tax increase. His own finance director, who was retained by Mayor Solomon, abruptly quit without notice, knowing he could not defend such a reckless spending plan containing so many fiscal time bombs ready to explode on the new mayor’s watch.
The current narrative is that the Avedisian left the city in excellent financial shape. Providence residents can recall hearing similar comments from former Mayor David Cicilline.
Mayor Solomon and new City Council President Steve Merolla have been placed in a no-win situation. If new taxes are required, let’s not blame the new administration. That responsibly rests solely on the shoulders of Scott Avedisian, the architect of fiscal ship he built as mayor.
Solomon and Merolla should clearly identify these problems to the public. The first step in solving a problem is recognizing the problem exists.
Many painful decisions await. And unless all stakeholders understand the situation, leaders will never steer the city back to safer waters, and Warwick will sink into insolvency.
Robert Cushman, is a former Warwick City Council member and School Committee chairman.