As Warwick City Council Chairman Steve Merolla leaves two decades on the council to seek a seat in the State Senate, a crowded field made up of two Democrats, two independents and a Republican is vying for the council's only vacancy.
As Warwick City Council Chairman Steve Merolla leaves two decades on the council to seek a seat in the State Senate, a crowded field made up of two Democrats, two independents and a Republican is vying for the council’s only vacancy.
Merolla said that his successor would need to be someone who can adapt quickly while keeping sight of their priorities. He said that education, the economy and response to the COVID-19 pandemic will be important things his successor will need to address.
“I think that they have to be creative and a person that listens to what is happening, and a leader, someone who takes the time to study the problem,” Merolla said. “Who knew, for example, last year that we would be faced with COVID-19?” Merolla said. “That was an issue no one saw coming. So [we need] people that are good thinkers, educated on the facts and not scared to lead and come up with solutions.”
Each of the Ward 9 candidates come from different backgrounds and have different priorities. Although they all agree that revenues, education and infrastructure are the ward’s largest issues they differ on how they should be addressed.
Vincent Gebhart grew up in Cranston, but spent the last eight years in Warwick. He works as vice president of operations at a Boston-based technology company, and decided to run for City Council after his position became remote. With a professional background in technology and business, he believes that he can translate his experience to make the council more efficient. He is running as a Democrat.
Aaron Mackisey and Zach Colon are the two youngest candidates. 22-year-old Mackisey, an independent, lived in Warwick since childhood. He graduated from the Catholic University of America with a degree in theatre, and currently attends Boston University for graduate studies in international affairs. Colon, 21, is a student at Rhode Island College studying secondary education and history running as a Democrat. A graduate of Toll Gate High School, he will face Gebhart in the Sept. 8 primary.
Independent Sean Henry was raised in West Warwick, but has worked for various municipalities for years. He was employed by the planning department in Hopkinton, served as deputy director of emergency management in West Warwick and currently works as a town planner in North Kingstown. He believes his background in town planning could benefit the council.
Armand Lusi is the race’s lone Republican. He worked as a union general contractor for A.F. Lusi Construction Inc. for 40 years, but now manages real estate he has acquired. Lusi is the only candidate to have run for elective office before. In 2010, he ran for the District 30 State Senate seat, losing to the late Democrat William A. Walaska by 15 percent of the vote.
Lusi, Henry and Mackisey will all face the winner of the Democratic primary in the Nov. 3 General Election.
Many of the candidates agreed that balancing the city’s budget is no easy task. Gebhart said that keeping the city affordable while providing quality services was a known issue to begin with in Warwick, but the COVID-19 pandemic has created uncertainties regarding revenue.
“This is an incredibly challenging time for people, so I think a tax increase would be a really challenging position to take today,” Gebhart said. “I think we need to look at making smart investments in the facilities. If you haven’t taken proper care of your home, it’s likely that your maintenance cost on your home will be higher because you’re making emergency fixings, while an investment in doing things the right way would save you money over time. Same thing with the city.”
Henry felt that Warwick’s current financial situation is relatively secure, but with tax revenues down due to a declining population and COVID-19’s impact, he believes that finding outside funding opportunities may be key.
“As a city, we’re going to have to be creative to make up for those revenue shortfalls,” Henry said. “I think the systems from the state and federal government are going to be key in cushioning that blow, hopefully that comes together in the next several weeks. I know that there are funding opportunities, grants and loan programs that we can take advantage of as a city which can help us grow certain areas of our city at a lower initial investment.
Mackisey said revenues, particular taxes, need to be comparable to the quality of the services the city provides.
Lusi felt that permit fees could provide the city more revenue.
“The building department needs more employees and I think it was a mistake to eliminate some of the positions, especially permit technicians,” Lusi said. “Permit fees are a source of revenue and contractors and developers should not have their projects delayed due to inadequate staffing.”
Colon doesn’t want to raise taxes unless necessary, and said that looking into reallocating current funds can help the city in the long-run.
“I believe that everyone benefits when taxes aren’t raised, it’s less money people have to pay upfront,” Colon said. “But at the same time there are necessary times. Before we raise taxes, we need to see where the current money is being allocated. We shouldn’t be spending more money on all these administrators, contracts should not be put on the backburner for years. There are a lot of places I believe I could find in the budget.”
Education is another concern among Warwick residents. All five candidates attested that Ward 9 in particular had concerns regarding schools, especially since many young families live in the ward.
Mackisey said that although the City Council should have some say regarding public schools, he most values the input of those working for schools such as teachers, administrators and the school committee.
“I believe that we should have public education in the hands of public education professionals, so I personally am very intent on working with our school committee and superintendent to get better results,” Mackisey said.
Gebhart felt that investing more in schools could help build a broader future taxpayer base, and that Warwick can learn from what its rival schools are doing.
“Warwick frequently uses pathways programs for out of district programs, or sends kids to private schools,” Gebhart said. “I have not surveyed everyone who sent their kids out of districts, but from what I hear other districts have better academics, sports and quality of life. Making sure that we keep up is one of those ways we can retain our students and the dollars attached to them, so we don’t create this compounding issue of not having enough money to do what we want while losing kids each year.”
Gebhart also said that school facilities need to be improved. He said that the city’s youngest building, Toll Gate High School, is 50 years old. Colon shared these sentiments, and argued that 15 years of level funding to the school department has harmed the schools’ academic, recreational and physical quality.
“We need to make sure our money is going to students and not administrative raises,” Colon said. “You can’t expect a student to focus on reading when it’s 100 degrees in their classroom.”
Henry agreed that infrastructure improvements were important for old school buildings, but also said that the COVID-19 pandemic may call for long-term changes in education that the council will need to consider.
“We want it to return, but the health and safety of our staff and students is paramount,” Henry said. “We need programs in place based on science to create a safe environment for education.”
Lusi did not comment on education policy. He said he would reveal his complete platform on July 31.
Henry also spoke about general infrastructure, including roads, bridges and sewers, in his platform. He agreed that roads and bridges need improvement, but also felt that water infrastructure has been overlooked. He stated how most of Ward 9 is not sewered, but adding a sewage system could benefit the ward. Henry added that although major infrastructure projects can be pricey, grants and loans through groups like the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank can help fund them.
Mackisey also made infrastructure repairs a major part of his platform. He previously said that Warwick should implement more public works projects, as well as a program similar to Providence’s 311 initiative. This program has Providence citizens use an app to report infrastructure issues and request help, most typically in sidewalk repair and street cleanup.
Mackisey also said that the City Council should have more in-depth plans with clear timelines for infrastructure projects.
“The most important thing we can do is develop more strategic plans for how to fix our infrastructure and give people our confidence,” Mackisey said. “People should know if and when their roads are going to be fixed. Neighbors brought up that there does not seem to be a set concrete program plan to address problems.”
Colon agreed in investing in infrastructure, but unlike his opponents, focused on green energy and infrastructure.
“We could invest in solar power city buildings and lights,” Colon said. “They can be paid by grants that wouldn’t harm taxpayers. There are grants for solar panels for homes too, we can bring down utility costs for our residents.”
Colon also supported creating more affordable housing opportunities in the city.
“We see a lot of luxury condo buildings coming, especially in Ward 9, but we don’t have any affordable housing development,” Colon said. “That will broaden our tax base and bring in more people and young families.”
Lusi said that drawing in businesses to improve the city’s economy would be one his priorities if elected.
“The city’s biggest challenge is its financial viability and my primary focus would be business development,” Lusi said. “I would like to see a technical review committee started that would assist builders and developers to accelerate their projects. The committee would involve the building and planning departments , fire marshal, water department, sewer authority and the tax assessor’s office and would meet once a month to assist in proposed developments.”
Gebhart supports street improvement and streetlight programs that the City Council recently implemented, but also said that departmental equipment can be improved. Term limits
“One of the challenges [our police department talks] about is the age of their equipment,” Gebhart said. “I’ve heard the same about fire but I haven’t directly spoken to them about that yet.”
Many of the candidates have also voiced concerns about term limits, particularly since Merolla spent 20 years on the council, often uncontested.
Gebhart believes that term limits could help bring new blood into government, and would allow for new ideas. He did not give a specific number for how many years an elected official should be limited to.
“I’ve been on the board of an organization here in Rhode Island for a number of years and the organization’s always had a limit for the number of terms someone can serve, mainly because while having a lot of history is critical, getting new thoughts and new ideas into an organization and planning are important,” Gebhart said. “For me, I would like to see encouragement for new people to get involved for new ideas to come to the forefront.”
Mackisey and Colon both support term limits, and both pledged to follow them if elected, even if the council does not approve of any specific term limit rules. Colon supports four two-year terms for both the mayor and the city council, and two four-year terms for school committee. Mackisey supports five two-year terms for city council, and two four-year terms for mayor. They both said that term limits would allow new people into politics and would prevent blind adherence to the status quo.
“Municipal term limits ensure good governance, increase participation as well as resident confidence in their elected officials,” Mackisey wrote in a press release on the matter.
Lusi did not comment on term limits. He said he will reveal his complete platform on July 31.
Henry had a more complicated take on the matter than other candidates.
“I think term limits are an idea that commands a lot of attention prior to elections, and then after elections they don’t get much attention,” Henry said. “So I don’t have many thoughts on them right now. I don’t see it as a problem right now because many people on the City Council right now were elected in 2016 or 2018.”
However Henry was glad that many people in Ward 9 were engaged in local politics.
“I’ve seen in other communities there has been a shortage of people running for positions like this, and sometimes there’s the assumption that someone else will run,” Henry said. “It’s probably better that we have more people then less, it offers a range of options.”