Council candidates sound off on election issues

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Though this year’s midterm elections on a national level may be red hot, here at the town level it’s a relatively quiet election season compared to years past. Only one seat on the Town Council-District 1 currently held by Richard DelFino III, who is not seeking reelection-has more than one candidate running for office.

The Sun Rise recently posed several questions to each candidate running for one of the council’s five seats in an effort to gain an understanding of where the candidates stood on various issues. Here is what they had to say.

DISTRICT 1

Linda L. Folcarelli, who graduated Johnston High School and attended CCRI, has lived in Johnston for her entire life. She’s retired from the Department of Corrections, Correctional Industries, and this is her first time running for office. She’s and endorsed Democrat.

Folcarelli favors additional school funding in next year’s budget, depending on the “merits and circumstances of the increase.”

“I would have to see where the money was going,” she said

She said she would support a proposed town wide elementary school campus rather than renovating existing elementary schools under the right circumstances, and with voter approval. I would support this.

When asked if enough is being done to address the town’s financial arrangements with Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, she said, “Currently we have a substantial payment to the town (over $4M) in addition to no charge tipping for our municipal trash. Also, free tipping for residents. The current administration is currently in negotiations with the corporation for a new host agreement. The current agreement was implemented 20 years ago.”

Folcarelli added that she would work very hard to make sure that the RIRRC maintains a noxious – free environment, and would also work with Councilman Santilli Jr., to deal with the corporation on behalf of constituents.

She is in favor of increased commercial development along Hartford Avenue, saying that such developments were critical in maintaining a balance on the tax structure.

Regarding recent arrangements between the town and corporations, including payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreements, and whether or not the have been fair and equitable to the town, referenced the agreement with Citizens Bank, saying “I think given the alternative use of that property, I think it was a very fair and equitable deal for the town.”

Folcarelli is in favor of additional funding for road repairs. She’s also reviewed the outline of recent municipal contracts and feels that they “appear to be fair to the members of the bargaining units and very fair to the tax payers.”

She applauds the current administration in their efforts towards fixing pensions and other legacy costs.

“They have implemented and fully funded a funding improvement plan. The administration engaged in lengthy negotiations with active and retired police officers and fire fighters and this resulted in a plan to save the pension system. The town has fully funded this plan,” she said. “This administration also started a long term plan to address legacy costs of health care. They have created a trust fund to fund future health care costs for retirees and have consistently funded it.”

For the most pressing issues in the district, Folcarelli said, “On a day to day basis, I will address issues like snow plowing, street repairs, and public safety issues. The long term challenges will be to ensure my constituents that the RIRRC maintains a nuisance free existence for our neighborhood.”

Why should Johnston residents vote for her?

“I am a life-long Johnston resident who will commit all my energy and time to represent my constituents. Now that I am retired, I can commit to being a full-time councilperson. I shall be available 24 hours a day 7 days a week to respond to my constituents concerns,” she said. “I am very committed to helping the veteran community. I support charitable efforts for Operation Stand Down, located in our town. I also volunteer for charitable efforts for homeless veteran families, and volunteer to assist veterans in the VA hospital. I am also very active with the Johnston Police program “Walk with Cops” for the elderly.”

*****

Deb Tirocchi Spaur, who was born and raised in the Windsor Hill section of Johnston, has been self employed for more than 30 years with her home and business cleaning service. A graduate of the first class of the then newly constructed Johnston High School, Spaur also attended Rhode Island College where she earned a bachelor’s degree.

Running as an Independent, she is making another run for the District 2 council seat, having lost to Councilman Richard Delfino III in 2016.

Spaur said she is absolutely in favor of additional school funding.

“That’s my heart and soul, everyone who knows me knows that I’ve poured my heart and soul into the high school as a member of the PTO for almost seven years. I raised thousands of dollars going door to door,” said Spaur. “I invented the school’s Holly Fair, with over 70 vendors when I ran it.”

She said that the children are our future and that everyone knows that, and as the community that houses the landfill, power plants, Sims Metals, the Citizens bank, money should be available for the schools.

In regards to a town wide elementary school campus, Spaur said that she “absolutely” supports the idea. She said schools are in awful shape and that they need to be addressed.

“That would solve several problems, including the busing situation, it would be cost effective, but under one building the kids would go to school at the same time,” said Spaur.

Considering Resource Recovery, she feels that not enough is being done to address financial and environmental issues.

“I feel that arrangements between the town and Resource Recovery need to be made more public and we need to be made aware,” she said. “I don’t think that Johnston should host the landfill once it’s current lifespan ends, but I also think that we should get our money’s worth out of it in the meantime.

Looking at commercial development along Hartford Avenue, she would like to see more major development in the area.

“Anything that is going to produce jobs for people in our town. A lot of people like to stay local, a lot of people who live here never left here, and they like the idea of working here,” said Spaur.

Spaur added that she’s a firm believer in giving back to the community, and that more, better, and higher paying jobs are necessary for the success of Johnston.

Considering recent economic arrangements and PILOT programs agreed to by the town, Spaur said she’s unsure if they were equitable for town residents. And as far as infrastructure improvements go, she feels much has already been done.

“It’s an election year, they’ve already done every road possible. There are a few roads in my district that need attention, but what several need are speed bumps and lighting,” she said. “But for the most part I feel the roads have been addressed in a lot of ways.”

Spaur believes that recent municipal contacts were negotiated in good faith, and that she would want be involved in the details of future negotiations. She feels that not enough is being done to address pensions and legacy costs.

“That’s a big issue, that’s something that needs to be addressed more because we can’t afford it,” said Spaur. “We’re in a different time, we have a lot more people in town that we have to take care of.”

Spaur believes that the most pressing issues in her district is flooding issues on River Drive, and the noise and smells comings from Sims.

“If I am elected to this position, I would have a sit-down with Sims and talk about putting some kind of barrier along Route 295, because that’s something that really needs to be addressed, because people in the area are not happy with the situation.

Why should Johnston residents vote for her?

My whole campaign, I’ve said I want to be the voice of the people. I want to do the right thing for the people. I’m passionate, I’m in your face, and I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “I’ll work until the end of time to get something done for the teachers, parents, and the businesses in town. I’m not in it for me, I’m in it for us.” DISTRICT 2

David J. Santilli Jr. has decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and is running for his dad’s District 2 seat.

Santilli is a graduate of Johnston High School, he attended Merrimack College from 1992 to 1993, and Roger Williams University from 1993 to 1997, majoring in Literature while minoring in Philosophy and History. He’s been employed by DJS Computer Consulting since 2000, and has served on the Johnston Democratic Town Committee for 20 years.

He’s in favor additional school funding for next year’s budget if there’s an increase in the population, or infrastructure needs that would require an increase

“Otherwise, I don’t believe we should increase the budget merely to increase spending by a per student basis,” he said. “Statistics have already proven that more spending improves the quality of education.”

Santilli said he would also support a proposed town wide elementary school campus rather than renovating existing elementary schools.

“I believe we have approached this idea during previous administrations. I would obviously like to view the logistics and budget of this project,” he said. “But, I do believe a centralized elementary program makes more practical sense today and into the future for our Johnston residents.”

When it comes to the town’s financial arrangements with Resource Recovery, he said he would need to investigate arrangements further to see how equitable they would be.

I have faith with our current administration knowing full well we are in good hands with our mayor and the current town council,” Santilli said. “I believe the goal of the town council and the mayor should be the fiscal success of our community while maintaining the well being of our constituents. We should always be consciences of our town and that the benefits of such a deal outweigh any shortcomings.

Santilli said he is “absolutely” in favor of increased commercial development along undeveloped sections of Hartford Avenue.

“Encouraging commercial development provides both tax revenue and jobs. It’s an absolute win for the town; especially with the rejuvenation of Hartford Avenue’s infrastructure,” he said.

Santilli also believes that recent economic agreements between the town and corporations have been beneficial for the town.

We have seen an outpouring of business’s willing to invest in our town, including Citizens Bank which I believe is a huge success,” said Santilli

When it comes to road repairs, Santilli said he may not favor additional funding above what’s already been approved.

“I think we are making steady progress with our current infrastructure Rome was not built in a day,” he said. “ I believe our council has been making strident progress in improving and repairing our roads. I am committed to continuing this progress with the administration in place.

Santilli recognized that of recent contracts between the town and municipal workers has been an extremely complicated topic, but overall he supports the arrangements. He also believes the town is making a concerted effort to address pensions and other legacy costs, and that they require additional diligence and expertise.

He feels that continuing to improve roads and infrastructure while ensuring the safety and prosperity of constituents is a top priority.

“As a member of the town council, I represent my district as its advocate. It is my privilege to prioritize their needs and their voice,” he said.

Why should Johnston residents vote for him?

“I am a Johnstonian. I was born and raised in this town,” he said. “Many of its citizens are my friends and family; therefore, our town’s well-being is my first priority.” DISTRICT 3 Joseph M. Polisena Jr. may have name recognition with his father serving as Johnston’s mayor, but he’s running for the District 3 seat on his own merits.

A lifelong resident of Johnston, Polisena attended Rhode Island College, earning a bachelor of arts degree, and went on to Roger Williams School of Law where he earned a Juris Doctor degree. He’s an attorney, and had previously worked in constituent affairs in the administration of Cranston Mayor Allan Fung.

Polisena feels that one of the most critical roles of government is to provide quality education to our youth, and would support additional education funding.

Funding for schools should be looked at as an investment in our community. Children are the future of our community and they should all be given an opportunity to succeed in an environment and have the tools to do so,”

When it comes to a proposal for an elementary campus in Johnston, he would be in favor of such a venture should it meet certain criteria.

“[D]ue to the significance of such a proposal, it should be presented before the voters in the form of a question on the ballot. This will be a significant investment by the taxpayers of Johnston. Therefore, each and every taxpayer deserves to have a direct say in the matter and should exercise their say in the form of approval or rejection on a voting ballot,” said Polisena. “I personally support the measure, as Thornton, Windsor Hill, and Barnes are all over 50 years old. Instead of investing funds in three different buildings that are more than a half century old, it seems smarter to invest in one new centralized building which will be well equipped to educate our community’s youngest residents for generations to come.”

Polisena believes that the administration continues to be engaged in discussions with RIRRC, and continues to fight to ensure the residents of Johnston are fairly represented for hosting the central landfill.

“However, as of now, the residents of Johnston are not adequately compensated by RIRRC with the current community host agreement. I have faith in, and hope to help, the current administration to secure additional compensation from RIRRC,” he said.

At the end of the landfill’s lifespan, however, Polisena believes that Johnston should not renew any talks to extend the ton’s involvement with RIRRC

“What needs to happen is the town should start preparing now on how it will account for the lost revenue when the landfill does close,” he said. “The sooner we prepare for the landfill’s departure, the better equipped the town and its residents will be when the funding dissipates.”

Polisena is also in favor of increased economic development along Hartford Avenue.

“As just discussed, the landfill will be closed in approximately 15 years. The town needs to attract new commercial development to offset the money it will lose from that closure,” said Polisena. “The best way is to increase commercial development to the town. New commercial business will stabilize the tax rate for residents and increase commerce.:

Polisena also approves of recent PILOT agreements reached by the town.  

“The current PILOT agreement between the town and Citizens Bank has benefited Johnston by providing state-of-the-art sports fields, basketball court, and walking trails for the town’s residents,” he said. “Of course, all PILOT agreements must be individually assessed to determine how to maximize the benefits to the town.”

He also would take a measured approach when it comes to additional road repairs.

“[L]ike the centralized school proposal, this will be a significant investment that may affect the tax rate for the Town’s residents,” said Polisena. “Therefore, a bond proposal for road repairs should be on the ballot where the voters can collectively decide if they support or reject such a proposal.”

Polisena believes that both the town and the municipal unions have come together to collectively bargain where both the employees benefit and the burden on the taxpayer is minimized. He also thinks that the town has improved it’s handling on pension and legacy costs

“Let’s not forget, this is a problem created over decades of mismanagement by municipal leaders prior to the 21st century throughout municipalities all over Rhode Island,” he said. “An issue that took decades to create does not have an short-term fix. The current administration has put in a financial plan to address the problem on a long-term basis.” 

There are three main issues Polisena plans to plan to focus on in District 3: trash pickup, road repairs and snow removal.

“I plan to address these matters by being accessible to residents when one of those three issues is subpar. It is the job of a councilperson to be a bridge between the residents of their district and town government,” he said. “I can’t promise to solve every problem, but I do promise to always reply to residents when they have a concern.” 

Why should Johnston residents vote for him?

“I hope to earn the vote of Johnston residents because I believe that I can provide engaged and effective representation in municipal government. Most residents of District 3 want a self-run government. What I mean by that is they expect their trash to be picked up, roads to be in good condition, and snow to be removed without having to go out of their way for these things to be accomplished,” he said. “However, problems do arise, and when they do I will always work to help alleviate those problems. That is the most crucial trait in any individual who wishes to be a represented in municipal government—to be there for their constituents when problems occur. Additionally, I will do my best to continue the Town’s pro-business growth that has been underway for the past decade.”

DISTRICT 4

Town Councilman Robert Russo, who represents District 4, is currently the longest serving person on the council having been there for 24 years. He has also served as council president in the past.

Born and raised in Johnston, Russo has practiced law for more than 25 years, and is a lawyer at the Law Office of Robert V. Russo. He is a product of the town’s schools and graduated in 1983. Russo went on to Bryant University, earning a bachelor’s of science degree before continuing on at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

Russo said that he believes schools are the backbone of the community and need to be funded to accomplish the goal of providing a first class educational environment, and he supports additional funding.

“Additional funding cannot come all from the local community, we must get alternative sources from State and Federal sources as well as increased private investment from corporate citizens,” he said.

The councilman added that he is a firm supporter of a centralized elementary school proposal.

“I have been a proponent of this concept for many years as believe it is an efficient means to provide education to our elementary school population,” said Russo. “Centralized services under one roof will save a lot of money while providing a top notch educational setting.”

In reference to Resource Recovery, Russo said that the town is in the process of negotiating a new contract and that “depending on who you speak to no matter how much money we obtain from Resource Recovery it will never be enough”

“However, I will await the experts opinions as to what similarly sized landfills pay their host communities to see where we rank and what figure should be fair to the Town. The new management of Resource Recovery has done a wonderful job of working with the community as opposed to the adversarial relationship of the past,” said the councilman. “ Resource constructed ramps which relieved a tremendous traffic burden on local roads. Additionally, Resource has developed a vibrant industrial park with major businesses contributing tax income and jobs to the town.”

With it’s lifespan nearing an end in the next 15 years, Russo said that Johnston has become dependent on the income and benefits conferred, and that he did not see the landfill exiting the town in the foreseeable future.

“Finding another location for the landfill will be very difficult and it is my opinion that the powers in the state will do what they can to make the landfill an asset to Johnston so that it is more welcome here,” he said.

Russo believes that the future commercial expansion of the town is west of 295, particularly along Hartford Avenue.

“There are large land areas that are suitable to commercial uses as opposed to residential uses. The infrastructure is being put in place and that coupled with interstate highway access has made Johnston a very desirable location for business,” he said.

When looking at payments in lieu of taxes, agreements, Russo stated that one cannot only look at the actual dollar amount of the arrangement. He said that there are many incidental payments made by these corporations such as permit fees, contributions to community projects and employment opportunities for our citizens.

“The PILOT payments are generally for short time periods then full payments are received. We have wonderful businesses in our town because of this consideration such as FM Global when they first entered the town as Allendale Insurance as well as Greico Motor Group when they entered the town as Metro Honda,” said Russo. “The long term benefit of having major businesses in the town far outweighs the short term reductions in tax payments.”

Russo stated that he strongly supports road repairs and has supported several bond measures to fund an on-going road resurfacing program that is paving numerous roads each year.

He also voiced confidence in recent signed municipal contracts.

“We have hard working municipal employees. The administration has maintained a very lean labor force and we have obtained many contractual concessions over the years,” said the councilman. “It takes many years to obtain compromise between parties – anyone who claims they can make radical changes overnight is lying to you.”

When it comes to unfounded town liabilities, Russo feels that Johnston is in the forefront in addressing its pensions, which is a problem plaguing many municipalities.

Looking ahead to the next term, Russo feels that there are many pressing issues in each district of the town, and that he would like to work toward getting more sewer and water availability to neighborhoods that need them.

“My district along with District 5 is experiencing a major growth in development – we need to make sure this is done responsibly with the least impact to the residents,” he said.

Why should Johnston residents vote for him?

“Johnston residents should vote for me because of my input as a councilman along with other elected officials we have grown our town and provided state of the art facilities to our residents,” said Russo. “We have established confidence in our community through stable government which has attracted national businesses to our doorstep which has led to top notch development which has made Johnston a destination for other communities to shop and visit for their daily needs bringing economic benefits within our borders.”

DISTRICT 5

Incumbent Robert J. Civetti, who was elected to Town Council in November, 2016, and has lived in Johnston for 47 years, is seeking another term representing the residents of District 5.

The self employed certified public accountant attended the University of Rhode Island to study business administration with a concentration in accounting, earning a bachelor’s degree. He has I provided audit and management consultation services to local cities, towns, and fire districts for over 28 years.

According to Civetti, he would approve of additional funding for the school district depending on the need. He is in favor of funding the School Department at a level which would enable them to provide top level education to the youth of the town. 

“Increasing the School Department’s appropriation is not always the correct answer. I think that the School Department officials need to constantly monitor their budget and their expenditures to ensure that they are operating effectively and efficiently,” said Civetti. “The School Department also needs to explore ways to save money by bringing some students back to the district and possibly providing programs which would attract students from other district’s which would generate out of district tuition revenue for the town.”

Civetti would support a proposed town wide elementary school campus, rather than renovating existing elementary schools. He sad that, at one of the council meetings in 2018, he recommended that the Town Council work with the School Committee to form an exploratory building committee for future school improvements.

“With the State proposing a bond issue for school improvements and our Federal Delegation also indicating some possibility for Federal Funding I thought it was imperative that the Town be prepared to act on these available resources. The mayor worked with School Committee personnel and a committee was formed that included members from the Town Council, School Committee, school officials and directors, and others,” said Civetti.

Civetti added that the committee has met several times and is exploring the possibilities to have an elementary school campus. “I am strongly in favor of one campus for our elementary school children that would have a state of the art facility, gymnasiums, and playgrounds,” he said. “The town and School Department should be able to realize considerable savings from the consolidation of our elementary schools.”

Regarding Resource Recovery, Civetti understands that the administration will be commencing negotiations with the RIRRC as the current agreement is set to expire shortly. He would also like to be involved in the contract discussions.

“However, I am certain that the mayor and his finance director, Joseph Chiodo, CPA, will be doing a thorough analysis of the contract to ensure that the town reaches an agreement that is in the best interest of the taxpayers,” he said. “The landfill has grown significantly from the initial agreement entered into in approximately 1994 and we need to make sure that the town is properly compensated based on the landfill operations at this time and projected operations for coming years.”

In 15 years, when the landfill’s lifespan is set to end, Civetti said that the town needs to explore the options and impact that the closing of the facility could have on the taxpayers. 

“If we believe that the landfill will close within the next 15 years then we need to be proactive in setting up a tax stabilization fund to set aside resources to help avoid a significant increase in taxes when the landfill closes and the payments in lieu of taxes and other revenue from RIRRC ends,” he said.

Civetti is also in favor of development of Hartford Avenue and bringing new businesses in to the Town, as long as the development is properly planned and vetted to ensure that the appropriate developments are constructed.

“We want to make sure that any new development of the Hartford Avenue area does not put undue burden on the taxpayers and our infrastructure,” he said. “We also want to ensure that businesses which come to Johnston pay their fair share of taxes and do not receive unfavorable tax treaty agreements.”

Recent arrangements between the town and corporations PILOT agreements, have been negotiated fairly, according to Civetti.

“I believe that the Mayor and members of the Town Council have always entered into agreements which they felt were in the best interest of the Town and the taxpayers,” he said. “ As a member of the Town Council I will review all proposed tax treaty agreements presented by the Mayor to ensure that the agreement is in the best interest of the Town and its residents.

In April 2018, Civetti said that he sponsored a resolution requesting the issuance of $5,000,000 in bonds to complete road paving projects. The council approved the resolution and number of roads being repaved throughout the Town.

“As we move forward I would like to see a line item added to the annual budget which would allow for some road repaving to be done on an annual basis so that we do not need to borrow funds to maintain the roads,” he said. “Completing road repaving projects on an annual basis will help enable the town to maintain the infrastructure and beautify the town.”

Civetti was also in favor of recent contracts between the town and municipal workers, and believes that the town is making a good faith effort to address pension problems.

Going forward, Civetti believes that the most pressing issue that the town faces continues to be the aging school buildings and the legacy costs, pensions and other post-employment benefits (OPEB). He said recent contracts negotiated by the mayor and ratified by the town council helped to reduce some of these costs

“However, we still have a long road ahead and we will need to be proactive in developing future budgets which will have increased contributions requirements to properly fund the pension and OPEB Trust Funds.  As previously discussed we need to develop a plan for the development of new elementary school campus and improvements to our aging high School and middle school,” he said. “Our school buildings need to be a safe nurturing environment to promote the learning of the youth in the Town. The children are our future and we need to ensure that they are provided with the tools they need to be successful.”

Why should Johnston residents vote for him? 

“I ran for office to try and do what is best for all of the residents of the town of Johnston not a select few. I will continue to advocate for the residents of District 5 and all the resident of the Town. I want to make sure that the decisions that are being made in town are those that are in the best interest of all residents and ones that will promote a better quality of life for the residents. Johnston is a community that continues to see economic growth and great improvement,” said Civetti. “ The financial condition and infrastructure of the Town continues to improve. The mayor has ensured that the taxpayers and the children of the Town have recreational facilities that are second to none and that police officers and firefighters have state of the art equipment and apparatus to serve the community. I applaud the mayor’s efforts and will continue to support him in his efforts to make Johnston the best community in the state of Rhode Island.”

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