A portrait of now former Mayor Scott Avedisian peaked over the real Avedisian’s shoulder in a propped-up position against the wall of what has been his office for the past 18 and a half years. It watched with a silent smirk as he read through the last documents that needed his signature prior to the next meeting of the Warwick City Council – the last time he will perform such a duty as mayor of Warwick.
The portrait was commissioned a few years ago and painted by Raymond Finelli, a Warwick artist. Avedisian likes it because his image will be frozen in time on the walls of City Hall, alongside the lineage of mayors that came before him, back when his hair was just gray – not white as it has recently gone.
The polished wooden frame encasing his official portrait also has significant meaning to him, as it was crafted from a storm-felled tree that had once stood within the historic cemetery in the mayor’s native Pawtuxet Village.
“I’ve lived in Pawtuxet my whole life,” he said. “It came from my neighborhood. Those types of things, when they present themselves, you know it’s the right thing to do.”
He also says it was the right decision to leave the office he has become synonymous with when an opportunity came to become CEO of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority in late April. However, he will admit that things have advanced rather quickly.
“It’s going to be weird, but you know when it’s time,” he said. “This happened so fast.”
At a brief and impromptu celebration of his tenure with various department heads and city employees on Monday morning, Avedisian cut the cake and mingled with people that he was able to call his colleagues and his friends.
He reflected on the goals he set when he first became mayor following a special election in 2000. He said he was hoping to be able to better relations with the airport, turn Rocky Point into a destination worth visiting and rework brownfields along Jefferson Boulevard into tax-producing parcels for the city.
“It’s kind of nice to know that all the things we talked about got done,” he said.
However, now the keys will be in the hands of Joseph Solomon. As of today, Solomon will relinquish the role of City Council President and assume the role of Acting Mayor. He has already declared his intent to run for the office come November as well.
The strained relationship between Avedisian and Solomon is not exactly a secret, but Avedisian has expressed his willingness to provide information and relevant transition documents to help Solomon as he prepares to take over the same day that the city’s budget will be officially transmitted to the city council.
“I’ve told the acting mayor that I won’t offer advice unless he solicits it, but I want him to know that I am willing to assist in any way that is helpful to him,” he said, adding that his biggest piece of advice to Solomon would be to hire a person to act as a policy director.
“You can’t be your own policy person,” he said. “You can’t possibly be an expert on every issue. Looking back, I wish I had put a policy person in when I first came into office.”
Avedisian believes the city is in a good financial condition, helped largely by the more than $20 million in unassigned fund balance that has accrued throughout his tenure. However, due in part to the City Council’s insistence on not raising taxes last budget season, there will automatically be a sizable structural deficit to deal with in the coming weeks, combined with a significantly increased need (and ask) from the school department and the ever-increasing pension and OPEB liabilities.
“I hope that they don’t continue to take from fund balance [to help balance the budget],” Avedisian said. However, he foresees difficulty if Solomon wants to hold the line on not raising taxes while still addressing problems such as fixing more roads and addressing the infrastructure of schools.
“The problem is expenses go up every year and you need to be very methodical with how you deal with those expenses,” he said. “You can cut certain things, and over the years we’ve cut certain jobs and redistributed duties to others and tried to reorganize in different ways, but at the end of the day there are fixed costs that you have to meet.”
Although it is never a popular choice to raise taxes even by a small margin, Avedisian stands pat that it is the correct way to be fiscally responsible while managing city expenses.
“I think part of the issue is that nobody wants to pay taxes, and I get that. I live here as well, so you don’t want to see an increase,” he said. “But every time you go to the supermarket, you pay a little bit more, and I think the more prudent way is to have small incremental tax increases rather than wait and hit someone with a huge increase that you can’t budget for.”
Avedisian said that, in the past, he has been able to come to agreeable terms with other configurations of city councils despite a differing of short-term opinions or political affiliation due to an agreement regarding what was the best possible choice for the city long term. He said this has not been the case with the most recent configuration of the council.
“I would certainly hope that the council is nicer to the acting mayor than they have been to me,” he said. “And I hope there will be some opportunities for real unity, which we didn’t get a lot of…it’s really only been in the last year and a half that there hasn’t been a coalition that sought to move the city forward.”
Regardless of the clashes with the council, Avedisian still believes that the city is poised for continue growth moving forward.
“City Centre is going to flourish,” he said. “Eighteen and a half years ago there were brownfields, contaminated chemical plant sites up and down Jefferson Boulevard and today, you have a train station, parking garage, people mover, hotels, restaurants – real high-producing, quality development that is going to serve this city well way into the future. And I think that’s only going to continue.”
Avedisian said that while physical expansion of the airport has officially concluded, he said their influence can still make for a positive impact on the city’s growth as well.
“They’re going to be taking a lot of the property that they purchased because they might have needed it for expansion, and they’ll re-purpose that to put property back on the tax rolls,” he said. “So you’re going to see continuing, evolving markets all along there that is only going to serve the city well.”
Looking back on the job, Avedisian was thankful to have worked with Police Chief Stephen McCartney his entire time in office, saying that he “never once” doubted a decision that he made. This stability was seen elsewhere in City Hall as well, which he said was of great benefit to the people of Warwick.
Being in office for so long also enabled Avedisian to really get to know people in the community, which gave him a more urgent sense in being there for all the lows and highs that go into being mayor.
“There are lots of things you have to do that are unpleasant,” he said. “When there’s a tragedy, at least from my perspective, I always felt that part of my role was to comfort people when there were things that had happened that were terrible. And, also, to be there when things are good and applaud them.”
Avedisian said that authenticity and a legitimate concern for the well-being of the people who elect you and are governed by you is essential, and that he “thrived” on the hectic, unique and sometimes unrelenting nature of the position – both for better and worse.
“I think you have to have that attitude in doing this, because if you’re not sincere it shows immediately,” he said. “It becomes very personal.”
In a parting message, Avedisian thanked the citizens who helped him win nine consecutive city elections for mayor.
“The people of this city are very kind and very generous,” he said. “I thank them for giving me an incredible opportunity that I never thought I would have in life.”
As he was wrapping up and prepared to head out of the office for one of the final times, a RIPTA bus rolled by outside the window of his office and past City Hall. Avedisian smiled alongside his portrait – one of those “icing on the cake” moments.