Last Thursday, Democratic mayoral candidates Gerald “Ged” Carbone and Richard Corrente sat down in front of panelists from the Warwick Beacon and cameras from PEG-RI public access television in Providence to provide insights into why they would make a good candidate for mayor of Warwick, with only about a week to go until the Democratic Primary on Wednesday, Sept. 12.
Although two candidates – Vincent Ferla, owner of C&L Auto Sales in Warwick, and current Mayor Joseph Solomon – did not ultimately attend the forum, Carbone and Corrente discussed current issues in Warwick and expressed their positions for about an hour. The forum aired for the first time on Monday night at 8 p.m. on Channel 17 for Cox customers and Channel 37 for Verizon customers. It will air on these dates proceeding:
l Monday, Sept. 3 and Sept. 10 at 8 p.m.
l Tuesday, Sept. 4 and Sept. 11 at 8 p.m.
l Wednesday, Sept. 5 and Sept. 12 at 12 p.m. (noon)
l Sunday, Sept. 9 at 4 p.m.
While Corrente is known around the city for his motto of “Cut taxes, cut spending,” and his proclivity to stand at busy intersections and wave to residents, Carbone took time from his opening statements to outline a core component of his own campaign – maintaining a more subtle presence.
“I am an outlier in this field, and I think that’s one of my strengths,” said Carbone. “I have a different way of analyzing and solving problems.”
Corrente, however, feels as though his visibility will help him at the ballot box.
“I believe I’m the most recognizable candidate,” he said. “I was the endorsed Democrat for mayor in the last election and I received over 14,000 votes.”
While the 14,000 votes were not enough to unseat Republican stalwart Scott Avedisian – who has since gone on to become CEO of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority in May – Corrente still believes his rallying cry of tax relief will resonate with Warwick voters later this month.
With Corrente, taxes are the bottom line. He cites high taxes as the number one issue on his platform and believes that they are the reason why, “We’ve lost 5,800 taxpayers in the last 10 years,” although that number is closer to 2,000 in the last seven years and 5,000 in the last 17 years. Corrente criticized Solomon for introducing the highest tax increase possible this budget season and credited himself with rallying taxpayers to lobby their city councilmen and women to reject tax increases a year ago.
“I didn’t make the actual vote but it was my rally that caused it. I rallied the 80,000 taxpayers. They told their city council people loudly that they were not going to tolerate it,” he said. “I take great pride in whatever portion of that you credit me for.”
Carbone, however, disagrees with Corrente on the notion that raising taxes is inherently bad.
“I like Mr. Corrente and I have a lot of respect for him, but it seems like he’s taking claim for more than you maybe could, to be honest. I think this idea of cut taxes as public policy is actually unrealistic,” he said. “Nobody likes the property tax. It’s really a regressive tax…[But] I can’t sit here and promise you I’m not going to raise taxes when you look at the next year’s budget.”
Carbone pointed to expenses coming down the line for the city that may necessitate incremental tax increases, such as pay raises for city employees. He also specifically mentioned the fire department needing updated apparatuses to replace aging units in their fleet as being an investment the city should be making.
“We need to stop responding to crisis and we need to start proactively managing to avoid crisis,” Carbone said. “I understand your distaste for property taxes, but I cannot sit here and promise you that they’re never going up. That’s unrealistic.”
The two candidates clashed on the ongoing school crisis, in which the Warwick School Department has come up millions short of balancing their budget and has been forced to make painful cuts to make up for lost state revenue and declining enrollment that hasn’t been balanced by the consolidation of schools.
Carbone, citing the Warwick City Council’s decision to allocate $5 million for road repaving in the budget this year while only allocating $1.5 million in additional funding towards the schools (who were level funded under the “maintenance budget” that Avedisian left with Solomon and needed about $8 million from the city), said that schools should have received a higher priority.
“If it comes to asphalt or education, I am going to put the emphasis on education,” he said. “I would take most of that $5 million – four of it – and apply it to the schools. We’re lay down some pavement this year and then plan proactively and begin to develop a program to systemically address the paving of our roads rather than just try to dump $5 million all at once.”
Solomon has recently offered $1.75 million more to the schools, which he said would come from the road paving funds allocated in the budget. That offer has not been officially denied or accepted at this time.
“I respectfully disagree with Mr. Carbone,” Corrente said. “I wouldn’t give them [the Warwick School Department] another dime until they are more accountable than they are.”
Corrente questioned the authenticity of a recent school program audit released that backed up the school department’s assessed need for significantly more funding from the city. The report indicated the need (without the $1.75 million in additional funds from the city) to be $4 million. However, Corrente said that this audit should have been chosen by an entity besides the school committee and school department, and questions the objectivity of it.
“Problem is that we don’t have a home rule charter,” Corrente said, later stating that he is not “completely trusting” of the school committee. “What I want to do is find out clearly what they’re doing with taxpayer money before we give them another dime.”
Carbone didn’t share these concerns.
“You have a reputable, professional auditing organization that is hired, frankly it’s kind of insulting to their integrity to say they would doctor their results to meet the [needs of the] school committee,” he said. “They’re going to do a professional audit, otherwise they’d be put out of business.”
Both candidates didn’t see much smoke when it comes to recent reports that the city’s fire department had miscalculated sick time payouts to its rank and file, potentially due to record keeping practices that include handwritten ledgers of every firefighter and administrator in the department.
These alleged misappropriations have reportedly led to an ongoing internal investigation of the department by the city’s auditing firm, YKSM, and have been calculated by independent sources to amount to nearly $250,000 over the last three years.
“There are definitely axes to grind from people that are complaining about that sick day policy,” said Carbone. “It is, by standards of private businesses, a very generous sick day policy and people tend to take advantage of generous programs. I would be very interested in seeing the results of that audit before I pounce on any accusations of fraud. I don’t think it’s there.”
“I’ve met with a lot of them; retired and present, I’ve met with the union leaders and rookie firefighters. They all agree and I agree that there is a system in place and that system needs to be tightened up a bit,’ Corrente said. “I think the small irregularities that have happened have been blown out of proportion. Yeah, I think we have a system that needs to be improved a bit but I would not nearly go toward the word ‘fraud.’”
Carbone didn’t mince words when it came the presence and overall effect the airport has had on the city.
“If there was no airport there and somebody came to us and said, ‘I have a great idea, let’s insert an airport right in the middle of the city of Warwick,’ we’d tell them to get lost,” he said. “The airport is a real inconvenience, a real headache, to the city of Warwick. It just is. Whatever tax benefits it may or may not spawn through development off to the side does not overcome the inconvenience of what those families have been going through."
Carbone referenced the “eerie” feeling of large swaths of land that once housed hundreds of residents which were bought by the airport and cleared away to make room for its runway expansion.
“I think you need to find some creative ways of dealing with that space, such as leasing it to farmers who could use it as hay and cornfields. We really need to study that space,” he said. “I think we need to work with the people living near that airport and help them improve the quality of life by rethinking and re-envisioning that space.”
The expansion has allowed the airport to flourish with new carriers and an expansion of offerings, but both candidates questioned at what cost?
“It’s beneficial to the state of Rhode Island. All the citizens of the state of Rhode Island got a much better airport, but at the cost of the people in Warwick,” Corrente said, proposing to enact a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) program with the airport to help mitigate some of the environmental harm – Corrente lists air pollution, soil pollution, noise pollution and water pollution – that accompanies the airport.
“They’ve improved their attitude greatly over the last two years,” Corrente said. “They truly want to be a better neighbor. I want to help them become a better neighbor.”
Both Corrente and Carbone supported mandatory sewer hookups for residents receiving sewer lines in their neighborhoods. Carbone said he was open to having the city as a whole pay for repaving of the roads in new sewer installations, which would lessen the burden on those residents and the assessments they’d have to pay.
The two differed on beach fees. Corrente criticized Solomon for “flip flopping” on the issue, as he supported it while he was City Council President and then issued an executive order to repeal the fee program within the first month of being mayor. Carbone said he felt that placing barriers on people who want to enjoy the local beaches was a bad idea.
Both candidates felt that trying to promote a “downtown” area through City Centre Warwick – an area of industrial and travel-commerce, mixed-use properties located near the T.F. Green Commuter Rail station – was disingenuous to the true heart and soul of the city.
“I think City Centre is an attempt to install an artificial heart into Warwick,” Carbone said. “Residents are never going to think of the airport and City Centre as our downtown. It’s not our heart. We have a heart, and our heart is in our villages.”
Corrente agreed, saying that Warwick is suburban and not “downtown Providence.” He pledged to bring back small businesses and residents through tax rebate programs, without specifying how these rebates would be paid for.
Carbone, on the other hand, felt that tax rebates were a step too far to re-encourage growth in the city.
“We can get people to come here because we are a good place to live and work and raise a family. We don’t need to pay people to do that,” he said, transitioning to the need for more affordable renting units in the city. “I do think we need to help with affordable housing on the rental side. Our single-family housing, I think, is very moderately priced, particularly by the standards of Southern New England.”
Corrente, once more, brought up high taxes as a deterrent from people moving to Warwick.
“We’ve dropped in population,” he said. “Warwick is number three [third most populous city in Rhode Island] and that bothers me. I want to bring people back to Warwick and the taxes that we have just don’t do it.”