It’s the last day of 2013 and Scott Avedisian is casually dressed and on the job that he had for the last 14 years. Now, another milestone in his administration is about to be marked, although no one is keeping score.
He looks up at the scaffolding around the City Hall tower. Workers are lowering planks now that the spire and weather vane on the dome have been replaced. The crowning elements to an $850,000 renovation of the historic tower were lifted to their perch at 6:45 that morning when the winds were calm.
“It is a good thing that project is done on the last day of the year,” he says to Robert O’Donnell of E.F. O’Donnell & Sons that completed the work.
Back in his office, Avedisian barely mentions the City Hall project as he is asked to underline the highlights and disappointments of 2013 and the challenges of the New Year.
Avedisian is prepared for the interview. He pulls several manila folders from a desk drawer. They are fat with newspaper clippings and press releases from 2013.
“These can be stored now,” he says, making one wonder how many file cabinets are filled with clippings and reports from prior years.
With this packet in front of him, but without leafing through the contents, Avedisian starts.
“A budget surplus is always welcome,” he says. While the audit hasn’t been finalized, an action that will come in the next two weeks, the surplus for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2013 is projected at $2.4 million.
He ticks through a number of recent announcements as achievements, including the fact that city businesses lead the state in Small Business Administration loans for the year; the branding of the Warwick Station District as City Centre Warwick and the marketing plan for the district; demolition of the former Potowomut School and the start of construction of a fire station on the site; and the start of work at the airport on extended runway safety areas.
He mentions the preservation of the Elizabeth Mill with the sale of the Leviton Manufacturing 80-acre parcel to developer Michael Integlia; the implementation of a lock box system for the rapid deposit of tax and utility payments; the city’s continued high level of recycling; and improved communications following the boil water advisory the Kent County Water Authority issued when e. coli was detected in one of its storage tanks.
The list of positive developments in the last year goes on.
Avedisian cites the high occupancy of hotels and the plan for a boutique Wyndham Hotel in Apponaug, which has yet to gain City Council approval; the success of the Ocean State Theatre Company in their new location on Jefferson Boulevard; city pension returns that exceeded state pensions; completion of the Natick Bridge over the Pawtuxet; the city-built “Danger Bridge” on Sea View Avenue in Oakland Beach; the return of the Pawtuxet Rangers’ charter; and the partnership that could lead to opening Conimicut Lighthouse to tours.
“The honor flights were really good,” he says of bringing World War II veterans to Washington and the memorial there. He mentions jetBlue’s commencement of service from Green Airport as another plus. Avedisian says he has a good relationship with Kelly Fredericks, who was named president and CEO of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation to succeed Kevin Dillon during the year.
“He’s good to deal with. We have frank and open discussions … he’s sincere and desperately wants to make this work for the city and the state,” he said.
By and large, Avedisian senses the economy was better in 2013 and feels that people are more optimistic going into 2014 than they were a year ago. He says foreclosures are down and a number of new businesses opened.
Thinking of negatives, Avedisian lists the death of former Secretary of State Susan Farmer, the drowning of a youth at Conimicut Point; Carol Pratt’s decision to close her country store in Apponaug; and how the city is left with only one independent pharmacy – Suburban Pharmacy – with the sale of Oxnard to CVS.
He doesn’t volunteer anything on the recommendation to close Aldrich and Gorton Junior High Schools that the School Committee rejected in favor of delaying the process and hiring a consultant to study the situation.
“It’s positive and negative,” he says when asked about schools. On the positive, he says the system has many dedicated teachers and administrators. He wants to get to know better new principals in the system and “see how we can work with them.” He doesn’t elaborate on school negatives.
Looking ahead, Avedisian says, “I think finances are always a major challenge.” He doesn’t foresee any cuts in state funding for the city. The budget has always been a top priority for Avedisian and, with the exception of one year, he has consistently produced surpluses, yet incremental tax increases have likewise become a feature of his administration, even if they are below state limits. On the topic of taxes, he notes that the city’s motor vehicle tax ranks low when compared to other municipalities, a fact that he believes is not known by many. Avedisian remains sensitive to the criticisms of a small group that argue that the city is headed for fiscal Armageddon because of the debt it is carrying and the cost of post-retirement health benefits for municipal employees. He feels they don’t accurately portray the city’s condition.
Going into the New Year, Avedisian cites escalating flood insurance premiums (as a result of the end of federal subsides to the program) as a major issue. There are reports that premiums for $250,000 of coverage have leapt from $5,600 to as high as $32,000 a year. Avedisian doesn’t suggest how the city can assist these homeowners and he feels current legislative efforts will only postpone the increases, not resolve the problem.
As for being an election year, Avedisian turns his focus to statewide races. He talks briefly about the gubernatorial campaign and how the Democratic and Republican primaries promise to be especially interesting this time.
“I don’t think you’ve seen all the candidates yet … maybe not heard all the names yet,” he says.
It’s a twist in the interview. What are his political plans; might he be thinking of a statewide office? Avedisian has been asked the question many times in many different years. Again, he’s not ready to say; although the word on the street is that he’ll run for an eighth term.
Might his name be among those not heard for a statewide office?
“You can never tell,” he answers.