Election results were still coming in Tuesday night, but Mayor Joseph Polisena was already thinking about the next major challenge, which, he says, needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.
With supporters flooding into Democratic headquarters across from Town Hall, ready to celebrate and congratulate the winners, Polisena looked concerned, even troubled, as he talked about the town’s $96 million unfunded pension liability.
“If we don’t fix the pensions, there won’t be any pensions,” the mayor said.
But the situation is more serious than retiree benefits and what those who have yet to retire can expect to get paid.
“The town won’t survive unless we do something about it,” Polisena said.
The mayor has been working on a plan that he expects to make public after he shares it with the Fire and Police unions. That could come within a couple of weeks, but not likely by the deadline set by state legislation for municipalities to submit a plan to deal with underfunded pensions by Nov. 11.
Polisena said the message he will deliver to the unions is that the town doesn’t have the money to sustain the current pension system and that he’s not prepared to ask the taxpayers to come up with it. That’s as far as he went in describing the plan.
“We’re very close with our plan,” he said, adding, “The ball is in their [the union’s] court.”
Despite such a sobering outlook during a day where the mayor captured almost 78 percent of the vote, Polisena, nonetheless, reveled in the successes of Election Day.
He was excited by passage of the referenda on mayoral term limits, $4 million for roadwork and $1 million for open space.
“Now we can get some infrastructure improvements going with the streets,” Council President Robert Russo said of the roadwork bond.
Going forward, for the position of mayor, terms would be increased from two to four years starting in 2014, and would be limited to two terms, for a maximum service of eight years.
“We’re making history with term limits,” Polisena said.
The mayor also spoke about the success of “the team” and, on a positive note about the town’s future, pointed to new developments and what they mean for the community.
But while Polisena was more focused on the work ahead, some like Deborah Fellela, who sought re-election to the Dist. 43 House seat, were more concerned by the tally. Fellela’s voice reflected the strain of Election Day. It was virtually gone after talking to so many people.
Dressed in a winter coat, buttoned to the throat, Fellela anxiously awaited word – any news – on her race with Independent Karin Gorman.
“I went to all the polls. I felt confident, especially when people told me they liked the way I voted,” she said.
She and her husband, Henry, got an early jump on the day. Henry was out of the house by 3:30 a.m., so as to post signs near polling locations. She was up by 5:15.
The sweetest news came by cell phone. The report was that she had won in all polling districts against Gorman, a second-time challenger. The margin between the two women widened this year, with Fellela’s lead growing from 58 percent in 2010 to roughly 65 percent this time around.
Tears filled her eyes. She shared the news with Polisena who gave her a hug and made certain she stayed in the front of the room for the celebratory speeches to come later in the evening. All of her Democrat colleagues representing Johnston at the State House had equally good news. Representatives John Carnevale (Dist. 13) and Stephen Ucci (Dist. 42) were unopposed, and in the vacant Dist. 44 seat shared between Johnston, Lincoln and Smithfield, Democrat Gregory Costantino defeated Republican Jim Archer with 63 percent.
On the Senate side, Frank Lombardo had no opponent for November, having won his Dist. 25 seat in the primary. In Dist. 22, made up mostly of Smithfield with a slice of Johnston, Democrat Stephen Archambault overtook Republican Richard Poirier with 68 percent.
Across the board, candidates endorsed by Polisena and the Town Democratic Committee were victorious.
“I think it’s a testament to the fact that what is being done is being accepted by the electorate,” Russo said.
In Districts 1, 3 and 5, Town Council members Eileen Fuoco, David Santilli and Stephanie Manzi had no opponents going into the General Election.
In Ward 2, newcomer and former chairman of the Planning Board Anthony Verardo bested his Independent opponent Melvin Steppo Jr., with 58 percent of the vote. In Ward 4, Council President Robert Russo won handily with nearly 74 percent over Republican Robert Matteo.
“It’s a nice win. I think the people know who is working for them up there,” Russo said. “The residents pay attention to the issues and they like what they’re seeing and what’s going on.”