Mark Desdourian gave an audience of angry Warwick taxpayers Monday night the three keys to winning an election, and not one of them was money. In fact, all three words were the same – “walk, walk and walk.”
Desdourian, who will be running a school for candidates, was one of five speakers at a meeting organized by the Warwick Financial Crisis Committee and held at the Warwick Public Library aimed at looking at the financial condition of the city and recruiting candidates willing to take on the challenge of addressing those problems.
The problems – from City Council members who reportedly don’t listen to their constituents to unfunded pension and other retiree benefits – were enumerated by local activist Rob Cote, former councilman and School Committee chair Robert Cushman, Warwick businessman and former GOP candidate for governor Ken Block and state Rhode Island Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Cienki. All three called on members of the audience, numbering more than 70, to consider running for office.
Cote showed clips of council meetings and efforts he said to shut him off, from disclosing paybacks through the award of jobs through assertions that what he planned to talk about was a personnel matter and cannot be discussed at a council meeting without consent of the people named.
“They violated my First Amendment rights,” he said, charging that council members prevent people from speaking and use “false information” to validate their action.
“It’s election time now,” Cote said. “There are things we can do.”
Cushman, whose detailed analysis of escalating pension and OPEB costs have been the trademark of presentations made to the City Council and the Financial Crisis Committee, chose a different tack Monday. He showed slides of Beacon headlines ranging from the collapse of sewers that closed Sandy Lane for weeks to the storming of City Hall by students protesting the proposed elimination of sports to balance the school budget. He noted that in his first State of the City address, Solomon said Warwick has a major fiscal crisis, yet his tune has changed and there’s no longer a sense of emergency.
“You know what’s going on. They’re playing games. They’re pushing it off to the side,” he said.
Cushman sees the situation worsening as replacement and renewal of roads, sewers and water lines aren’t addressed, automatic cost of living adjustments (COLAs) exponentially increase pension payments and retirees don’t share in the cost of health care.
He said six firefighters who retired in 2016 paid $750,000 into their pension, and then asked the audience what they are projected to receive in pension payments over 20 years. After there were a few guesses of one to two million dollars, Cushman said $11 million.
Even with maximum tax levy increases of 4 percent annually, Cushman forecast legacy costs would be “so high [the city] won’t have the money to do anything…you can’t have it all, you can’t continue to pay lifetime health care.”
“It’s a call for action. We need to make change,” he said.
In a call Tuesday, Cushman questioned how the council could move ahead recommending school bonds – the council approved a $56 million school bond to appear on the November ballot and is considering another $10 million for the construction of athletic fields at Toll Gate and Pilgrim – without looking at the city’s indebtedness and what it would face in annual interest and principal payments. Yet a third school bond that would eclipse the other two at close to $200 million could be likewise on the ballot depending on the outcome of the master planning process being undertaken by a consultant. The funds would be used for a new high school or extensive renovations to the two existing high schools.
Cushman said Superintendent Philip Thornton is seeking to bring change to the schools, but the School Committee is under the control of the teachers’ union. He urged people to consider running for School Committee.
Cushman said there is a “big rift” in the council, as evidenced by the 5-4 vote on the three-year firefighters contract.
“They ratified this contract without information on the costs,” he said.
Cushman and Cote were critical of Warwick state legislators, noting that many hold leadership positions and asking, “What do we get for it?”
Rallying the audience, Block placed the Warwick per capita cost of unfunded pension and OPEB liabilities at $10,000.
“Doesn’t that make you mad? It’s outrageous,” he said.
He put the cost of addressing the aging sewer infrastructure at $100 million, saying it “is out of control and corrupt.”
Block also talked about the efforts of five council members to approve the firefighters’ tentative contract agreement at a special council meeting the Friday before Christmas. He called the effort wrong, adding, “It’s up to us to fix it.”
“Vote some of these bastards out,” he said.
Block offered to start PACs, or political action committees, on behalf of those choosing to run for office.
Cienki said the GOP stands ready to assist those considering a run for office, whether as a registered Republican or an independent. Additionally, she said, “It’s not a hard ask to run for office.”
Desdourian reminded, however, “in order to make the change you have to run for office.” He urged those interested not to delay and start walking their wards or districts now because that is how they are going to win.
He asked those thinking of running for office to stand up. Four stood.
<iframe src="https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FWarwickBeacon%2Fvideos%2F2647271668878118%2F&show_text=0&width=560" width="560" height="315" style="border:none;overflow:hidden" scrolling="no" frameborder="0" allowTransparency="true" allowFullScreen="true"></iframe>