PAWTUCKET — The audience was small — about a dozen residents, but they kept the questions coming for Mayor Donald Grebien and his key department heads at Fallon Memorial Elementary School Thursday night.
The meeting was one of a series of community meetings that began this month, and which Grebien has held regularly throughout the three years since he was elected. “I get to give you some of the highlights as well as the downside of government. I’ll talk about where we are and where we came from, and then I’ll take your questions,” the mayor said.
Among the highlights were a reminder that he had whittled down a $12 million operational deficit and $14 million structural deficit since taking office, had no tax increase this year, and has a goal of no tax increase next year. He said this had been achieved through cuts, a freeze on expenses, consolidations of staffing and attrition, along with “a lot of hard work.”
The mayor also noted that the privatization of the trash and recycling program, while controversial, is working well, and cited several “bright spots” on the economic horizon, such as the expansion at Tunstall AMAC that could add 100 more jobs, and the growth of the city’s two breweries, Foolproof and Bucket Brewery, and the busy Armory Center for the Arts.
On the downside, he noted that the city has still been hampered in its quest for a higher bond rating by lingering school deficit, and noted that the City Hall tower is still leaking and has no real solution in sight for finding money to pay for repairs. “We’re looking into grant money, or seeing if we can do something through the National Historic Register,” he said, in response to questions.
Finance Director Joanna L’Heureux noted that the last two fiscal years had ended in a surplus, and said she felt confident that this one would end “in the black” as well. She also said that while the city is hoping for a higher bond rating to come soon, the current rate is stable.
On the economic development front, Dylan Zelazo, director of constituent services and communications, spoke of the impact a new Enterprise Zone and Historic Tax Credits program will have on attracting businesses, as well as the recently completed Pawtucket River Bridge. He also said the Riverfront Corridor Development is underway, including a new medical building at the former Tire Pros store and the city’s plans to soon seek Requests for Qualifications (RFQs) from developers for the former Division Street hotel property.
Fire Chief William Sisson spoke of the re-investment to public safety that involved a new fire engine, two new rescues, and a new ladder truck coming soon, as well as the hiring of 21 firefighters, courtesy of a federal SAFER grant. Police Chief Paul King said there were six new officers attending the Police Academy who will join the Police Department in December.
DPW Director Lance Hill outlined the benefits of the privatized trash and recycling program, saying it saves the city money, has boosted the recycling rate and frees up DPW personnel for other maintenance tasks, such as cleaning out catch basins and doing weed control.
He acknowledged there are some logistical issues still to be worked out with the vendor, such as how to handle streets with two-sided parking.
Hill also said the city had paved about 30 miles of roadways this year and is in the midst of paving Broadway to Kossuth Street and making it two-way at Exchange Street.
Among the questions were more inquires about the trash program and what to do with the recycling bins during heavy snowstorms (place them on top of the snowbanks, if possible, or in the street, said Hill).
Larry, a resident who didn’t want his last name used, cited an ongoing problem with litter, vandalism and people congregating at the RIPTA bus stop on Roosevelt Avenue and asked why the bus stop wasn’t moved elsewhere. However, Mayor Donald Grebien said that while there are plans to move the bus hub to High Street or another location, RIPTA has not yet made any official decision due to logistics and costs.
Another resident, who didn’t want his name used, questioned the mayor about why the police officer who admitted to stealing gas was still entitled to his pension and other benefits. Others in the room echoed their concerns about this.
Grebien replied that this was “a bone of contention” for him as well, but said because the crime was a misdemeanor, there were limitations on what the city could do to penalize the officer. However, he said his administration is still looking into a possible audit of the gasoline use and whether any civil action can be taken. He added that a new and more secure system for tracking gasoline used at the city pumps is being installed in about two weeks.
Steven Kapalka, a frequent attendee of community meetings, had numerous questions for many of the department heads regarding purchasing and suggestions about cutting costs, particularly with changes to 24-hour shifts for firefighters.
Another resident suggested that a walking and fitness trail be constructed near the tennis courts at Slater Park through the use of grant money.
The mayor will hold three more community meetings, Tuesday, Oct. 15 at Varieur Elementary School, 486 Pleasant St.; Thursday, Oct. 17 at Baldwin Elementary School, 50 Whitman St.; and Tuesday, Oct. 22, at Nathanael Greene Elementary School, 285 Smithfield Ave.