When it comes to knowing the ins and outs of Johnston’s fiscal status, the students of Johnston High School business teacher Debra Smyth are now well versed.
Following recent classroom lessons involving budgeting, Mayor Joseph Polisena was invited to speak to the 11th- and 12th-graders in Smyth’s business class last month. And while the mayor provided the students with insights into the town‘s financial standing, he also hinted at a possible “major” business development in Johnston.
Polisena began his presentation by telling the students how he was once a student at Johnston High School, and how he got to the position he holds today. He explained that his career started as a radio announcer at the age of 17, when he used the name of Mark Elliott while on the air. The students learned that the mayor became a firefighter in 1975 before he become a registered nurse.
Polisena also explained that he became an adjunct professor at the Community College of Rhode Island before being elected as a state senator and then mayor.
When Polisena first took office over 12 years ago, he said that the town had a $9 million deficit and that his office had been emptied of all furniture.
“I was like a horse, standing up for two or three days until I bought furniture, and the town was absolutely broke,” he said.
The mayor informed the students of the role of various government bodies in town, including the Town Council, School Committee, Planning Board and Zoning Board. He also went into detail about the work his administration has done over time, including negotiations with Rhode Island Resource Recovery, constructing new athletic complexes, negotiating scholarship programs with new green energy companies in town and how constituent concerns are addressed.
The students learned how the town’s bond rating improved over time through contract renegotiations, more lucrative business arrangements, addressing pension liabilities and savings realized through attrition of town employees.
“If you fast-forward to today, we have about $1.4 billion in new business development in the town. With that, we have a lot of businesses that are paying taxes, and they’re paying the lion’s share of the tax base in the town, plus it’s created jobs,” Polisena said.
The mayor also reviewed the town’s recent audit report, along with the town budget and how it is created, with the students. He highlighted the town’s $29 million cumulative surplus and the lack of a tax increase for the past three years.
During a question and answer session, however, it was possible future business developments that really seemed to grab the students’ interest.
“I’m not a big religious guy, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed and saying Hail Marys, because I’m trying to work with a business that wants to come into the town and put up a 2.1-million-square foot building,” Polisena said. “Now I can’t even conceive how big that is, but it’s pretty big, and that would create jobs.”
When pressed for an answer by the students as to whether or not that business may be Amazon, the mayor kept his cards close to his chest.
“I’m saying prayers that Amazon comes to Rhode Island and comes to Johnston. There are all kinds of rumors, but I will not confirm or deny that they are going to come,” Polisena said. “But let’s hope they do.”