The new year in Warwick will mark the first year that a man not named Scott Avedisian will occupy the corner office of City Hall since the turn of the millennium. While tenured City Councilman Joseph Solomon has spent nearly two decades working in the building, his first seven months in the driver’s seat has already been wrought with challenges.
On top of assuming mayoral duties just as budget time kicked into high gear, Solomon had to grapple with finance director Bruce Keiser resigning just days later. There have been sewer line ruptures, water main breaks and burst pipes. Ongoing situations with the city’s destroyed annex building displacing a majority of city workers and the fiscally limping school department – which just brought suit against the city – are some other examples of city-wide strife faced by Solomon.
But don’t just take it from us that times have been challenging for the city’s new CEO.
“Every day is a new adventure,” he said quietly from the lower conference room during a recent interview. “I probably don’t smile as much as I used to but I’m getting the job done. That’s what the people elected me to do and I move forward and try to stay positive.”
Conducting interviews and some meetings from the lower conference room instead of his office is another indication of Solomon’s workload – he says his desk and surrounding office area is piled high with financial records and other city documents that he is pouring through daily.
City finance is perhaps the biggest area of focus for Solomon, and it has been especially under the microscope as numerous news outlets, including this one, have been following and reporting on fiscal discrepancies brought to light regarding the bookkeeping practices and certain contractual provisions of the Warwick Fire Department that have resulted in an ongoing audit via the city council and even questions being asked of certain individuals by the FBI.
Solomon has ended two practices of the fire department – one regarding sick time payouts that were initiated in a side agreement under former mayor Avedisian, the other a contractual provision regarding accrued excess vacation payouts that were changed in valuation through a change in contractual language that was never brought before the city council for approval.
“Was it a popular thing to do? Probably not, but it was the right thing to do,” Solomon said of the decisions, the former of which has resulted in a grievance that is now awaiting a decision via arbitration. “That’s what I’m all about as mayor of the city.”
Those were reactive changes made quickly, but Solomon says that changes he has made proactively to prevent such instances from happening in the future are also of importance.
Among these changes include better tracking changes and placing watermarks on all collective bargaining agreements so that, throughout a contract negotiation, there will be no confusion as to what changes are made, by whom, or when those changes were proposed and adopted into a tentative agreement.
“We will definitely be tightening up what has existed for years before me,” Solomon said, adding that he was waiting on a finalized report from the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC), whom he called in to assess the city’s financial situation near the beginning of his tenure. He said he had already been “implementing some of their suggestions.”
Hiring a new director of MIS – the city’s information technology branch – following the resignation of Carlos Zambrano, has also led to new revelations regarding improper allocation of city funds.
As reported to the council finance committee during their Dec. 17 meeting, new MIS Director Philip Carlucci – a former vice president of IT for Hasbro hired in October – and finance director Brian Silvia, who stepped into the role following Keiser’s departure, uncovered four bid items under Zambrano’s purview that were being paid out to vendors without proper authority from the city council.
These items included long-term contracts for wireless internet, telephone service, closed-circuit radio services for municipal and emergency personnel and wireless cellular services for municipal employees. Although it wasn’t clear how much was already spent in the wireless internet bid, nearly $400,000 was apparently spent between the latter three bid items between the expiration of the prior contract on Aug. 31, 2017 and the nearly 15 months since.
“There’s been some discoveries in the MIS department that will require outside eyes to look into and may result in an investigation of sorts,” Solomon explained. “Things did not follow the proper methodology of entering into contracts or paying for things. That’s the prior MIS director and I have to attribute our finance director and the new MIS director for their diligence. They’re both doing a tremendous job. They discovered it, I didn’t discover it.”
In his letter to the council, Carlucci indicated Solomon and Silvia had already implemented changes to prevent such a situation – where a department director seemingly entered into bid contracts unilaterally – from happening again.
“Since uncovering this anomaly, the Mayor and Finance Director have instituted changes that mandate paying all invoices requiring an associated bid to be paid via a process that requires documented bid draw-down tracking,” the report reads. “This change will both improve payment transparency and prevent unauthorized expenditures from going unnoticed in the future.”
Solomon said that these types of changes are best practices he would utilize in the private sector, and that he is more interested in getting an accurate assessment of all city finances rather than try to point fingers or levy accusations at the previous administration.
"These are items in the private sector that I’m accustomed to. Apparently, that’s not the way it was done,” he said. “These are changes I’m going to implement. It’s not because I’m saying anyone is dishonest, but it’s good for internal controls."
Personnel and big picture
Solomon mentioned how he has relied on the municipal department heads – many of whom were put into their positions by Avedisian – considering the unexpected nature of his rise to office. However, after being duly elected in November by a wide margin, he now has the opportunity to craft his administration exactly as he sees fit and as he wants it.
Already the city directors of finance, MIS and Parks and Recreation have been replaced with people appointed by Solomon. City Clerk Lyn Pagliarini was let go and Deputy Clerk Lynn D’Abrosca is filling the post. Mathew Solitro, who became the interim director of the Department of Public Works, is poised to become the permanent director, according to Solomon. New chiefs will have to be decided for both the fire and police departments.
In the past, Solomon has indicated that he will work with anybody who shares his ideals for governing the city moving forward. He points to improving infrastructure and continuing to grow relationships with community businesses as particularly important issues.
Financially, Solomon said that he meets with Silvia twice a day, and that revenue projections were coming in ahead of last year – close to 57-60 percent at about the halfway point of the fiscal year. However, he said that finding money to make infrastructure changes necessary, like the continued fixing of roads and repairs to water and sewer mains, would be challenging and would likely come down to possible bonding. Outside funding from the state and federal government would also be looked into.
“We need assistance. We’re not in great shape,” he said. “I’m not stating doom and gloom but there’s a lot of things that need to be repaired in the city of Warwick, whether it be roads, sewer lines, water lines, things of that nature.”
Looking ahead, Solomon expressed excitement to explore possibilities of putting school buildings returned to the city by the school department to good taxpaying usages.
“We need money to keep this city operating,” he said. “I’ve been faced with a lot of unexpected expenditures that have really upset the apple cart, so to speak. It’s going to be a challenging.”