Less than 24 hours after President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address, Johnston got its own local update. Mayor Joseph Polisena gave his State of the Town address yesterday morning at the Autism Project on Atwood Avenue.
Although most mayors and town administrators do not follow suit of the governor and president, Polisena said he wanted to highlight some of the positive things happening in town, and did so to an audience of roughly 20 people.
“It’s just a great town,” he said. “What makes our town so special are the people we have.”
The challenges facing cities and towns, he conceded, are immense.
When he took office, Johnston had a $9 million deficit, which he said took three years to pay off. Continued cost-savings have come through attrition of more than 30 town employees, replacing them with part-time workers that don’t require health care or pension costs.
Those pension costs are the most significant roadblock to the town’s fiscal health.
“The legacy costs are the things that are killing us,” he said.
On the revenue side, Polisena focused heavily on economic development, ticking off the new businesses in town. When a new business is looking to locate in Johnston, the mayor says he sits down with them personally, along with the planning director, town engineer and the building official.
“Time is money, especially for the business community,” he said. “We’re definitely pro-business, there’s no doubt about it.”
That good work, he said, is possible through collaboration with private and public entities, including his fellow elected officials.
“If you’re a mayor and you’re in a position where you have a bad council and a bad school committee and all you do is fight, I might as well stay home,” he said.
Polisena does not share the same high opinion for all officials in Washington, whom he said should have term limits.
“If we had term limits in Washington, we would have a better country,” he said. “We send billions and billions of dollars to other countries where people want to kill us and we don’t take care of our own people.”
Also on the mayor’s list of aggravators is former Governor Don Carcieri and the Department of Environmental Management (DEM). Polisena said Carcieri balanced the state budget on the backs of the cities and towns, leading to $10 million in lost state aid. DEM, he said, makes the regulatory process too cumbersome for businesses.
Yesterday’s program, sponsored by the North Central Chamber of Commerce, was also an opportunity for the hosting Autism Project to get out their message. The non-profit provides education, support and training for individuals with autism spectrum disorders and the families and health care providers that support them.
Joanne Quinn, executive director for the project, said that autism is an “epidemic” in Rhode Island and nationwide. In the year 2000, 250 students in Rhode Island public schools had an autism diagnosis. Today, the number is close to 2,000 – making autism a diagnosis that is increasing at a rate more than cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined.
“Our task is large,” Quinn said. “We work every day to improve the lives of children with autism, and their families.”
Quinn urged Chamber members or any business to get involved in the Autism Project, as it is a condition that hits close to home for so many Rhode Islanders. She said the work of the organization also ends up saving money for cities and towns.
“Towns like Johnston face enormous costs if children can’t be educated in their hometown,” she said, explaining that through professional development, the Autism Project is able to arm teachers with the tools they need to serve the ASD population.