Should Johnston’s next mayor get a $50,000 (or more) raise?

Town’s Charter Review Commission considers increase in town council and mayoral compensation


Johnston has the lowest-paid mayor in the Ocean State.

Should the town’s next mayor get a $50,000 raise, from the current $75,000 annual salary to at least $125,000, as several members of the town’s Charter Review Commission (JCRC) proposed last Thursday? One member suggested raising the mayor’s salary to $130,000, or possibly as high as $150,000.

The members of the JCRC agreed last week that the mayor was due for a raise. But how much more money will the next mayor make?

Is a 60% raise “outrageous” (as, more than four years ago, the JCRC’s joint spokesperson, attorney and former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung called a similar proposal made by Cranston City Council while he was finishing his final term in office in 2019).

That question’s still up for debate. And voters will have to approve changes to the Johnston Town Charter, the document that sets a minimum compensation rate for the mayor and members of Town Council, at the ballot box.

“The Charter Review Commission needs to make that determination on their own,” Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr. responded to questions via email earlier this week. “What I do when negotiating with unions for collective bargaining is I use comps in other similar municipalities as a determination for pay. As far as a numerical percentage increase, when the salary hasn’t been increased in over 20 years, any comparable increase percentage is going to be high.”

Keeping Up With The Jones’

Polisena provided a study from the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, “a non-partisan advocacy and membership organization representing all 39 municipalities across” the state.

According to their database, mayors of neighboring cities and towns make more than Polisena’s $75,000 annual salary, but less than the $125,000 proposed by JCRC Vice-Chairman Fred Iafrate.

JCRC member Joseph Andriole asked the committee to consider a much larger raise, proposing raising the next mayor’s salary up to $130,000 to $150,000. Andriole served as a former battalion chief for the Johnston Fire Department, ex- IAFF Local 1950 union president, and he’s the current president and business agent for the Rhode Island State Association of Fire Fighters.

Johnston’s population hovers around 30,000 residents (29,568, according to the 2020 U.S. Census). More than 82,000 people reside in the nearby cities of Warwick and Cranston, nearly triple Johnston’s population. The mayors of Warwick and Cranston each earn around $100,000 annually. 

The median household income for a family in Johnston, Warwick and Cranston all hover around $80,000 (just $5,000 more than Polisena’s current salary).

The League of Cities and Towns also lists mayoral pay in other Ocean State cities and towns: Central Falls, $82,335; East Providence, $90,000; Woonsocket, $90,050; Cumberland, $100,000; North Providence, $105,000; and Pawtucket, $105,912. And according to Providence Mayor Brett Smiley’s office, he’s currently earning $157,207.

Town Council Members Underpaid?

The JCRC also considered a raise for Town Council members. According to JCRC Chairman Richard DelFino Jr., council members currently earn a $6,450 annual salary (the president earns $6,900 for presiding over the council).

While the JCRC discussed pay raises for the mayor and town council members, they heard only proposals, and DelFino cautioned members against throwing out random pay raise numbers.

“No committee member should throw out a number unless it’s data-driven,” DelFino argued Tuesday morning. “It’s got to be very well defensible. We’re not going to just throw a number out. I think it has to be very well documented so that we can support it.”

Andriole, however, proposed increasing town council member stipends to $10,000 per year.

Three of five town council members —Linda Folcarelli, Lauren Garzone and Robert Civetti — attended last week’s JCRC meeting.

Two of them, Folcarelli and Garzone, argued they should get paid more for their duties, which often involve a deluge of constituent requests at all hours of the day, every day of the week.

Civetti said he was satisfied with his current pay and didn’t want or need a raise from taxpayers.

Longer Terms & A Raise

“I do like the idea for this, however you decide,” said Folcarelli, who represents Johnston’s District 1. “Staggered or term limit, but four years would be much better. We just get there, we’re just learning our job, we’re just beginning to know all the constituents, and then you got to run for office. Doing both is like crazy. You got to do it, but you have no time, you have no life, which I don’t have any life at this point, but … honestly, I get calls, a lot of calls, with different problems.”

Folcarelli made an impassioned plea to the JCRC, filling them in on the life of a town council member (or lack thereof).

“(I’m) on the phone sometimes with someone for an hour and a half,” she told the JCRC. “And I’m not kidding you. They love to talk to me. The elderly love me. They talk to me for hours. They’re lonely. And I’m not going to tell them ‘no.’ I’m going to sit there and listen to every problem. Hear about their kids, and their grandkids, and every other thing they want to talk about. Then I have to go check the problem. I have to get in my car. I go to wherever they complained about. I sit there; I take pictures. After I take the pictures, I load them into an email. I send them to DPW, to the enforcement. And I’m doing this all the time. So I spend a lot of time, tear on my car, a lot of my personal time. I’ve been to meetings with constituents Saturdays, Sundays, holidays; you name it, I’m there. It’s like, I really don’t have a life.”

She was asked to estimate how much a bi-annual re-election campaign costs.

“Oh my God, the expense I mean … I keep hitting up all my friends and family every two years for money for fundraisers,” Folcarelli said. “After a while, they’re going to get sick of giving me money. Do you know how much money I spend? … It’s money out of my pocket. Not campaign funds. I have to save those campaign funds for campaigning. So I spend a lot of money in-kind … I’m at Simmons Village. I play bingo with them … I never win.”

She eventually estimated she spent around $6,000-7,000 on past re-election campaigns.

“She’s recommending that we come up with a proposal that gives her her life back,” DelFino joked.

The room laughed with Folcarelli.

“I mean I’m out days, nights, weekends, holidays, you name it, I’m out there,” Folcarelli boomed, loudly addressing the small room. “They call me, I run. And they’re like, ‘Oh my God, you came.’ It’s a lot of time.”

According to the unapproved meeting minutes, “a discussion ensued regarding increasing the stipend of the Town Council members,” but the issue “will be revisited after receiving a comparison of other cities and towns.”

Garzone, who represents District 2,  also voiced her support for a raise in her town council stipend (the raises and term limits wouldn’t take effect until the beginning of each office’s next term).

“As far as the stipend; definitely an increase, as Linda said,” Garzone told the JCRC. “Sometimes you can be out three times on a Sunday visiting with constituents. You want to, if it’s in your heart of hearts, and I like one-on-one. I want to see the problem. I can listen over the phone, but I need to be there. I need to look in their eyes, to make sure, number one, (they’re) telling me the truth. And I want to see what the problem is. And I’m making a phone call or sending an email to the department head ASAP. This is a 24/7 job. I work full-time for the city of Providence.”

Garzone said she sometimes takes constituent calls while she’s working at her full-time job.

“ I think eight years is enough,” Garzone said. “I am very close with council members in the city of Providence and they like having term limits as well. Give somebody else a chance.”

Garzone also mentioned her Newport beach club membership to cap her argument for a raise.

“I belong to a beach club down in Newport,” she told the JCRC. “I’ve met some of the council people there — (they) don’t operate like we do. It’s totally different. City of Providence, I love what they do. The council people are in it for the people.”

Town Council Term Limits?

In addition to raising the annual stipend for Town Council members, the JCRC also entertained a proposal to increase Town Council terms from two years to four years (the commission also discussed possible term limits and/or staggered council district terms).

Garzone stood to speak in favor of longer terms and term limits.

“I am in favor of a four-year term,” Garzone argued. “And I am in favor of a term limit. So the last time I campaigned, I did broach the subject of a four-year term with the majority of my constituents. And they are in favor of a four-year term. I said, whether it’s me or someone else. They would feel more comfortable with a four-year term. That’s in my district.”

DelFino asked Garzone why her constituents were in favor of term limits.

“Why would they care?” He asked, playing devil’s advocate. “Why would they say that they care, unless they like the person, and want to keep you there … Why would they care? If someone came to my door and asked me if I was in favor, I would say ‘no.’ Because I can hold you accountable to two years. Why would I wait for four years? I was just curious how that came to be.”

“Some of the constituents, honestly, were new to District 2,” Garzone replied. “And they said they want consistency in a person. So, they want to deal with that same person, for a while.”

Garzone’s answer seemed to contradict her earlier argument for term limits.

Civetti took the floor next.

He said he’s in favor of four-year terms, but not staggering the terms.

“I prefer to see it go where everybody’s up,” Civetti explained. “If you have a total turnover, you have a total turnover. Let the voters vote. I don’t think there’s a reason … to worry about continuity. I think that if you have some members on the council that are doing their job, they’ll remain there … The public should have the right, that if they feel the entire council should be replaced, replace them.”

Civetti also rejected the term limit proposal.

“I’m not in favor of term limits,” Civetti argued. “Again, if somebody’s doing a good job, you keep them there. If the taxpayers want them out, they’ll remove them.”

And he said he didn’t want a raise.

“As for the compensation, I think the current compensation’s more than adequate,” Civetti told the JCRC. “I don’t think there’s a need to change that … you’re not doing it for the money. You should be doing it for the public; for the difference you can make in your community. It’s not about the money. I think the compensation’s fine where it’s at.”

Mayor Fung Agreed (in 2019)

In 2019, the Cranston City Council proposed increasing the mayor’s base annual salary from $80,725 to $125,000, a year with guaranteed 2.5 percent annual increases.

At the time, Fung was finishing his final term as mayor (pushed out by term limits).

In August 2019, Fung told the Providence Journal that the proposed “56% increase to $125,000 plus an annual 2.5% increase each year for the next Mayor” was “outrageous.”

Fung refused to sign-on to such a significant pay increase.

"If this ordinance passes the council as is and ultimately transmitted to me, I will veto it,'' Fung told the Providence Journal in 2019. “I believe that people should seek election to any office based upon a belief in public service, not just a salary.”

Ultimately, in September 2019, Cranston City Council bypassed Fung and increased the future mayor’s salary to $105,000. Current Cranston Mayor Ken Hopkins, who was a City Councilor at the time, joined the majority in voting to approve the mayoral pay raise (he was elected the next mayor).

On Tuesday morning, Fung replied to emailed requests for comment on his 2019 objections to the very similar scenario as the discussion launched last week in Johnston. He emphasized that he was responding to a political question and not a question of law.

“I believe that the compensation for the mayor and council should be reviewed and raised,” Fung wrote, emphasizing that he’s speaking for himself, and not the commission. “When we are facing huge inflationary costs in our country that hits everyone in their wallets and pockets, it is important to raise the pay significantly to keep up and ensure we have quality candidates for office who are not deterred from running because of the salary.”

Polisena also addressed Fung’s past statements on mayoral pay raises.

“I believe the circumstances of that situation was that an individual on the council had already declared for mayor in their upcoming election, which had made it very political,” Polisena wrote via email Tuesday morning. “Dissimilar to this, this isn’t about me or any one individual, it's about the office of mayor and every person who will be in the position in the future in 2026, 2030, 2034, 2038, 2042, etc.”

Despite the lowest mayoral salary in the Ocean State, Polisena still ran (successfully) to succeed his father last year.

“If this change is implemented, it won’t take effect until 2026,” Polisena explained. “I am only eligible to run for one more term, which is from 2026-2030, then I’m done.  I think the current salary suppresses good people from running and town is going to miss out on good candidates who won’t give up their current job to run if the salary remains at $75,000.”

Final Raise Proposal TBD

Both Polisena and the JCRC have yet to settle on a final number to take to the voters.

“As far as the specific amount, that’s not for me to say, it’s for the Charter Review Commission … and ultimately the voters,” Polisena argues. “I think any number that’s given needs to be justified and compared to other communities similar to ours.  Also, I would refer to the changes going on in Pawtucket as well, although that’s a bit different because I don’t believe they have term limits.”

Last week, Pawtucket City Council considered an ordinance to increase their own pay, and the mayor’s (from an $80,000 base pay to $150,000; though, after an inflation adjustment, the city’s current mayor currently makes more than $105,000).

“Other communities have raised salaries to meet up with the cost of inflation or are discussing increasing salaries significantly for their mayors and councils,” Fung wrote Tuesday. “For instance, Pawtucket is currently considering raising the mayor’s salary to $150,000 and council salaries to $15,000 for the council president and $13,000 for its council members.”

Polisena expects the JCRC will carefully consider executive pay in other, similar Ocean State municipalities.

“The League of Cities and Towns posts the annual salaries of municipal leaders,” Polisena wrote earlier this week. “While it shows Johnston is the lowest in the entire state, I would use that list to make a determination as to what the proper number should be. I think the salary now suppresses a lot of good candidates from running, and that shouldn’t be the case.”

Andriole made a motion directing Fung “create a comparison of Cities and Towns similar to Johnston with filtering for budget, median income and population.” The motion passed unanimously.

After the JCRC holds its final meetings, the group will decide which proposed Town Charter amendments they should take to Johnston’s voters.

The commission will next meet at 6:30 p.m., Jan. 11, at the Johnston Senior Center. Johnston Town Charter Articles V, VI & VII (Town Clerk, Town Solicitor and Probate Judge, respectively) will top the agenda.


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