Joseph Polisena believes that he has the experience and strong leadership skills necessary to serve the residents, taxpayers and business interests of Johnston for another term.
Polisena’s parents, Joseph Anthony and Julie, built their dream house in Johnston in 1960 and moved the family from Providence when the mayor was about five years old. He’s lived in town ever since. He attended Thornton and Windsor Hill and was a member of the first chartered class at the high school, graduating in 1972.
He served more than 21 years on the Johnston Fire Department, primarily focused as a member of the rescue crew. He attended the Community College of Rhode Island for nursing, eventually moving on to Roger Williams University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in health and social services. In 1998 he completed a Master of Education degree through Cambridge College. Polisena has also been employed as an assistant professor at CCRI.
Polisena served a total of 12 years in the Rhode Island Senate, from 1993 to 1999, where he served as Deputy Majority Leader, and again from 2001 to 2007. He ran an unsuccessful bid for mayor of Johnston in November 1998. In November 2006, he ran for mayor again and has served as such since 2007.
“I came into a 9 million dollar deficit, no furniture in the office, and quite frankly it was a mess. It was challenging,” said Polisena. “When I look at what we inherited, and where we are today, we haven’t had a tax increase in three consecutive years, and there are not many communities that have not had a tax increase in that time.”
When it comes to economic development, Polisena cited the town’s $25 million surplus as a sign of the town’s fiscal strength. He states that the town’s bond rating, weighted as A- from Standard and Poor, which is investment grade, and an A3 rating from Moody's, also an investment grade, is the “highest it’s ever been.”
“We’ve fixed the pensions, the police and fire pensions, without raising the taxes. We were able to bring four parties together; active police, active fire, retired fire and retired police,” he said, referring to contacts agreed to in June of this year. “We brought them together and came up with a financial improvement plan to get the albatross off our necks. So we fixed that.”
Changes in healthcare also realized cost savings, where retirees were switched from Blue Cross to Medicare, which Polisena estimated to be between $500,000 to $700,000 per year during the first several years, without affecting coverage levels.
“I had to fix a lot of the sins of the past because previous administrations gave the store away, quite frankly,” said Polisena. “I battled with the firemen – I respect them, but I battled with them. Now, we have all of our contracts signed, we have two five-year contacts signed with the police and fire departments, the municipal contracts have been signed, and they all got a fair contract.”
The police contract signed in August 2017, with the International Brotherhood of Police Officer Local 307 (IBPO), for example, saw members receive a three percent wage increase on July 1 of 2017 and 2018, with the same increase scheduled for 2019. On July 1 of 2020 and 2021, officers will receive a 1.75 percent wage increase. Through the agreement, the town also funded the police officers pension plan with $8.5 million for fiscal year 2017, with an annual increase of 3 percent for 20 years.
Along with new contracts, Polisena said there’s been a reduction in the number of town employees through attrition. He then attempted to bring longtime employees back part time, and at a cost savings, to retain their institutional knowledge.
Polisena said that, when he first took office, the town had a Planning Board that “basically hated development” and appeared to have their “own little fiefdom” where nimbyism (not in my back yard) attitudes toward development prevailed.
“We need businesses to stabilize taxes. We’re a suburban community, we need businesses here,” said Polisena. “We have to be friendly to business because they’re investing their money with us. If you fast forward to today, we’ve had $1.3 billion in new business during my administration, including Citizens Bank.”
Businesses brought into town that Polisena said he worked with include FedEx, A. Duie Pyle, Job Lot, the new FM Global, along with the redevelopment of the old Stuarts Plaza. He’s proud that Citizens Bank agreed to build their campus in town, that the town has a new highway ramp, and athletic fields there that are open to the public as part of the agreement.
Looking toward Hartford Avenue and the recent extension of sewer and water lines in the area, Polisena said that he is working on a “major, major, major, major, major project,” one in which he believes will stabilize the town’s taxes in the future. This is the same area where a proposal for the second headquarters for Amazon was presented to the state by the town.
Polisena recently received criticism for an agreement with Invenergy Services LLC to sell the company water for their proposed natural gas and oil powered plant slated to be built on Wallum Lake Road in Burrillville. The company plans to build a facility in Johnston and truck water from there to the Burrillville site. Under the water sale agreement, Johnston expected to receive more than $18 million during the next 20 years.
“I’ve made some tough decisions. I took a lot of heat for that, but most of the heat came from people who do not live in the town,” said Polisena. “I did what’s best for the town of Johnston. Sometimes my style isn’t that of being calm. I’ll fight with anybody at the drop of a hat for the residents or this town.”
When Polisena first took office, the school department was facing significant accreditation issues. He states that he provided the funding necessary to rectify the situation. He also said he does not support charter schools and is a strong proponent of the town’s public schools. He cited the recent formation of a school safety committee, following multiple school shootings across the country last year, which has made security improvements at each school.
Polisena said he has a good working relationship with the School Committee and supports looking into new initiatives, such as the development of an elementary school campus that services the entire town.
“I’ve created over $500,000 over 20 years in scholarships for the kids in Johnston through the agreements reached with green energy companies now coming in town,” he said.
When it comes to spending, Polisena said that he looks at every dollar that comes in to be sure it is spent wisely.
“Do I yell and scream when people spend? Yes. I tell my department heads that if we don’t have it, you aren’t getting it,” he said. “I tell them if they overspend, they’re going to get fired.”
He complimented his team of leaders in the town, from Police Chief Richard Tamborini, Fire Chief Peter Lamb, DPW Director Arnold Vecchione, Parks and Recreation Dan Mazzulla, and more, saying they are some of the best people he’s worked with.
Having served on the fire department, Polisena said that public safety is a priority of his. He stated that the town has received two new fire trucks at no cost to taxpayers, having been acquired with permit fees paid by Citizens Bank. He also highlighted all new equipment purchased for the Department of Public Works, from road repair equipment to resources needed during times of natural disasters. A new ladder fire truck purchased in 2014, which cost approximately $750,000, came from money the town won in a lawsuit against Broadrock Renewable Energy and Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC).
“We probably have the best EMTs and the best equipment,” said Polisena, who said that rescues are now equipped with defibrillators and drug boxes to prevent overdoses, and that the police and fire stations have been remodeled. “Now, I know I can put my head down on the pillow at night knowing that we have the best equipment for rescue and fire apparatus. The same goes for the police department.”
The lawsuit settlement against Resource Recovery and Broadrock also allowed the administration to build a new high school football field and indoor athletic center.
“I’m a strong proponent of our youth keeping busy, not just with computers or video games, but physically, because that’s important,” said Polisena.
When it comes to Resource Recovery and the landfill, Polisena said that the town got “ripped off from the time the agreement was signed 20 years ago.” It’s projected that the landfill has a lifespan of about another 15 years.
“We’re in the process of negotiating with them now. I’m going to make sure that this town, even when the landfill is closed, that the town’s future is secure with the landfill,” said Polisena, who said he is working with the Town Solicitor to secure the town’s interests. “We got peanuts when the original deal was signed. We should have been getting $12 to $15 million a year with an escalation clause…However, I’m trying to make the best out of a bad situation, so we’re looking for financial stability for the next 15 years through a host agreement.”
The connections the mayor said he’s established during his tenure has allowed for other town improvements. He says he’s asked for donations of services, such as the repaving and reconstruction of the police station parking lot by Joe Vinagro from Patriot and asphalt donated for projects by DiGregorio Corporation.
Polisena readily admits that he can be rough around the edges and fights vehemently for what he believes in, in which he can sometimes come across as harsh. But he feels that he wouldn’t do anything differently.
“You have to have the courage as mayor to say, ‘This is the way it’s going to be.’ I can say that I feel that I’ve done everything I can for the residents and to make the town a better place,” said Polisena. “There was a stigma in town that it was corrupt, that it was a joke, but I believe we’ve gotten rid of that stigma. This is a corruption free administration, and I’m proud of that.”