Republican Peter Filippi has thrown his hat into the ring once more, challenging incumbent Democrat Joseph Polisena in the race for mayor. In 2010, Filippi garnered 9.2 percent of the vote.
A fiscal conservative to the core, Filippi laments that Rhode Island is plagued by high unemployment, high taxes, high per-pupil spending and is consistently on the worst-ranked list of states in which to do business.
“We need to realize the main responsibility of our elected officials is to oversee that our taxes are being spent wisely,” he said.
The blame for today’s challenges, he says, lies on the shoulders of the Democratic Party, “that has been in total control of our state for over 70 years.”
“We need to elect humanitarians to office, not politicians who believe in big government and total control over our society,” he said.
Filippi believes that while government provides essential services, this must be done in a more cost-effective way. In many instances, that means privatization could be a better means of delivery. In particular, he is an advocate for school vouchers, which would add competition to the educational market. He also used volunteers as an example for lightening the load of town services and, by extension, reducing the size of government.
He believes Johnston could “develop a volunteer system in which we could assist residents in a number of ways, especially those receiving in-home health care, in which faith-based groups work in harmony with local government.”
Filippi has also been a vocal critic of issues surrounding the town’s unions. If elected, he pledges to take a tough position on collective bargaining, bringing wages and benefits, including health care and pensions, more in line with what is being given in the private sector.
“We need to put realistic caps on pensions and health care contributions, including exploring alternatives regarding services,” he said.
Filippi argues that his opponent has been too lenient on contract negotiations; a process that Polisena has long said does not take place overnight.
“Regarding fire and rescue, we should consider having private industry analyze our demographics and consider the costs. Also, we could privatize the rescue aspects,” Filippi said, adding that shift times should be changed to avoid rush hour times.
A more extreme suggestion he proposed would be to make all shifts part-time, eliminating the need for benefits for firefighters, for example. He likewise believes private security services could save the town money.
Another priority of Filippi’s is transparency and open access to information. He would like to see a town database where residents can easily access budget or contract information, and an opinion box where residents could share their ideas for cost savings. Also along those lines, he said he would develop a citizen oversight committee to monitor complaints on town services and policies to expedite the investigation process. During the election season, he would like to see open forums televised on public access held at the Municipal Courthouse for candidates seeking office.
Mayor Polisena believes the town is headed in the right direction. Since taking office in 2007, he is proud of much of what he has accomplished, including steering the ship to acquire a new fire station, a new library, a new municipal courthouse and new soccer fields.
“I think recreation is paramount to having a good community,” he said. As is education, which he said he is pleased with in Johnston. He credited Superintendent Dr. Bernard Di Lullo and his team, as well as the Johnston School Committee, with doing more with less, without damaging student programs.
“They know finances are difficult and they’re making it work. We work well together,” he said.
Polisena has worked at shrinking the size of government, losing more than 20 positions through attrition, and cutting costs through efforts like the switch from Blue Cross to MuniCare. Consolidation has been a means for savings in departments like animal control and Community Development Block Grant administration, and he believes more can be done, such as potentially police and fire dispatching with similarly-sized towns in the area.
Perhaps his most important accomplishment, he said, has been ongoing efforts for economic development. He listed new and growing businesses in the town, such as Job Lot and Hurd Auto Mall. He also mentioned the still-vacant Stuart’s Plaza, for which he has been criticized, as the project has not yet picked up speed, despite a groundbreaking more than two years ago.
“It took longer than it should have,” he admitted, adding that the naysayers are “going to eat their words” when the project commences in the next four months.
He said an additional bonus with development is that new businesses stimulate surrounding businesses, as it drives traffic into the town.
“If you build it, they will come,” he said. “They all feed off each other.”
Still, the mayor’s “bucket list” of projects is not complete. “Every day is a battle, especially in this economy,” he said.
He is hopeful that this year’s ballot referendums will pass, crossing off a few more items, such as $4 million in roadway improvements, $1 million for the acquisition of open space and establishing term limits for the mayor’s office – two four-year terms.
The biggest challenge ahead, he said, for whoever is mayor, is pension reform.
“The pension fund will cease to exist in five or six years. They’re totally unsustainable,” he said. “You can’t kick the can down the road any longer. We can’t tax our way out of it.”
When asked if he planned to institute changes similar to pension reform at the state level, Polisena said state reform did not go far enough.
“We’re going to do something probably more bold,” he said. “We need to fix it once and for all.”
Polisena sits on the State Pension Board, and said this issue will “make or break every city and town.” The key to solving it, he said, will be compromise.
“There will be some difficult decisions ahead, but I think it can be fixed,” he said, “ if people are willing to tighten their belts.”