Mayor Joseph Polisena said he expects the town to receive $12 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan, but didn’t commit to any projects until “I get the check in my hand.”
Polisena said he believes the money will come in two payments – one this year and another in 2022 – and upon its delivery he will meet with the Town Council to discuss the most prudent ways of spending it.
He said he has some ideas in mind for the money, but declined to discuss specifics beyond saying they would “have a positive effect on the 30,000 residents of this town.” He also said he hoped the potential initiatives would have a “long-lasting impact” over the next several decades.
“The old saying, ‘The check’s in the mail,’ once I get the check in my hand, then I’ll believe it. I know Washington, they’re constantly fighting back and forth, so who knows what’s going to end up happening,” Polisena said during a phone interview on Tuesday. “I’m just looking forward to sitting with the council members, discuss with them, and I think they’ll be very happy when they find out what my plans would like to be. I think they’ll agree, I know they’ll agree because it’s a good way to get the most impact out of the money.”
Polisena said he and his administration are going to start working on their budget soon, with the intention of holding a public workshop with the Johnston School Committee to address its $1.6 million shortfall. He said the discussion would focus on “what they’re going to do with the money and where the money’s going to go.”
“They passed the budget with the $1.6 million increase, but I don’t think they addressed the structural deficit of $2 million,” Polisena said. “I’m willing to compromise with the School Committee, we work together. We’re not North Korea and South Korea so to speak, so I’ll sit down with them and the council and we’ll come up with a solution that is advantageous to the taxpayers, because bottom-line, this is all falls on the taxpayers.”
The mayor said residents need to be cognizant of the landfill closing in the next decade, a move that will strip Johnston of $5 million in payments and free tipping. The town has no shortage of possible new revenue streams, with Encompass Health ready to build its latest rehabilitation facility and continued work on Project Schooner.
“Obviously, hopefully if that comes to fruition, I can be very comfortable saying it will be a really good deal for us and the future of our town,” Polisena said of Project Schooner. “Like I said, we need new schools. You can either go to the taxpayers and ask them to pony up, or we can find other revenue from businesses coming in to our town and stabilizing our tax base. That’s why we haven’t had a tax increase in four years.”
The mayor said he is aware the town will have to build more schools in the next few years, and he said he wants to avoid going to the taxpayers to accomplish that goal.
“I’m preparing for the future. I’m preparing for Johnston’s future. I may be in St. Anne’s Cemetery when this all comes to fruition, but at least I can rest nice and easy knowing that we planned financially for the town’s future,” Polisena said. “We just can’t plan for today [alone].”
While Town Hall never closed for business, Polisena said residents are eager to “open up now” when it comes to local businesses and the Johnston Senior Center. He’s hopeful that continued vaccinations will soon lead to herd immunity, and he lauded Gov. Dan McKee for ramping up the process.
“I want to get these programs going for these seniors,” Polisena said. “They deserve it, and they’ve been kind of cooped up and isolated for over a year now. I’m very impressed and proud of Dan McKee, who has kept his words to get people vaccinated, especially the teachers. He kept his word, he did the teachers. The teachers should be very happy that he kind of put his neck out there and said we’ve got to get the teachers done, it’s important, because we want to get the kids back to school and want to make sure that the kids stay safe as well as the teachers staying safe.”
Polisena said operations have been running smoothly since the Johnston Recreation Center pod became a regional inoculation site. He said there have been “no hiccups” and continued to call the local hub the “gold standard” for Rhode Island.
“We’re getting a lot of compliments from people out of town who are coming into our community and obviously going through the process,” Polisena said. “They’ve been very happy with the professionalism of the firefighters, as well as the town employees who are helping them re-register. So it’s going very well. I’m proud of our firefighters, our police officers and the municipal employees that have been helping. Sometimes it seems too good to be true, but they’ve been flawless.”
Polisena said the pod would remain open as long as the state needs it to be, adding that he’s been told it will likely be operational through at lease June. In the event of its closure, he said it would be ready to reopen in short order if necessary.
The mayor said he’s spoken with a vice president at Citizens Bank who inquired about vaccinating employees, and Polisena said that is being arranged. He said McKee has mentioned inoculating employees at large companies, whether they come to the pod or volunteers visit their workplace.
“My firefighters and my police officers are well experienced with setting it up,” Polisena said. “My DPW guys are the ones who set it up and break it down, so I’ll follow the governor’s lead. He’s the leader of our state, I trust him. I had a personal conversation with him on Sunday, and he wants us to start to go into some of the businesses.”