By DANIEL KITTREDGE Editor's note: This is part of a series of profiles of the candidates for mayor, based on recent interviews conducted for our Radio Beacon podcast. Steve Stycos has nearly two decades of experience in elected office, having spent 10
Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles of the candidates for mayor, based on recent interviews conducted for our Radio Beacon podcast.
Steve Stycos has nearly two decades of experience in elected office, having spent 10 years on the Cranston School Committee before winning the City Council’s Ward 1 seat in 2010.
He won reelection to that seat three times before opting for a successful citywide in bid in 2018. And while he said a run for mayor, hasn’t been a longtime goal, his unexpected finish atop the citywide field in the last election “gave me a little nudge from the public” to consider that course – especially given his desire to continue his work in local government and his impending departure from the council due to term limits.
“This is an opportunity for me to continue in city government … I have some idea of how to get things done, and I also know that you have to be in it for the long haul,” he said during a recent interview for the Herald’s “Radio Beacon” podcast.
He added: “I think the city’s going to face, or is facing, some difficult times and needs someone who’s experienced to make the best of it.”
Stycos, 65, is one of three Democrats seeking the party’s nomination for mayor in the Sept. 8 primary. The other hopefuls are Maria Bucci, a former Ward 4 member of the City Council, and Adam Carbone.
Since 2010, Stycos has worked as farm manager at Westbay Farm in Warwick, which grows fresh produce for local food pantries. His past experience includes time as a freelance journalist, a business agent for a clothing workers union and an admissions director at Providence-based adult learning center Dorcas Place, according to a biography on his website. He and his wife, physician Christine Hebert, have two adult children.
Aside from his experience in city government, Stycos has made his other community involvement a key part of his pitch to voters. A resident of the city’s Edgewood section, he helped from the Friends of the Pawtuxet group and the Pawtuxet Village Farmers Market. He has also been a school PTO board president and a member of the Cranston Educational Advisory Board.
Focus on fiscal straits
Addressing the economic fallout of the pandemic will be perhaps the top challenge facing Cranston’s new mayor in January 2021, and Stycos has been among the City Council members to raise the alarm over the tough decisions that likely lay ahead.
His deep knowledge of, and past approach to, the budget process has been a central part of his appeal to voters. During the interview, he pointed to several successful efforts to put off or remove nonessential spending, often in the tens of thousands of dollars, from the city’s capital budget – moves he said save taxpayer money over the long term by reducing borrowing.
He also cited what has become the annual pursuit of providing additional local funding for Cranston Public Schools during the budget process – whatever can be secured through a series of amendments before the council, often just hundreds or thousands of dollars at a time.
This year, for example, that process yielded roughly $70,000 in additional school funding, including $45,000 through Stycos’s successful amendments and $24,000 though an amendment proposed by Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan.
“I know I’ve done that more than any member of the council – every year, propose cuts in different areas where I think money could be better spent elsewhere, or not spent at all,” Stycos said.
Looking ahead, Stycos said the city is likely to face hard choices as it navigates the continued fiscal effects of COVID-19. The current lack of additional stimulus from the federal level and the state’s decision to hold off finalizing its own budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 until the picture becomes clearer have added to the local uncertainty.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen with the budget. We didn’t know in May, and we don’t know now, because the state doesn’t seem to have any money and the federal government, we don’t know what they’re going to do,” Stycos said. “So it’s really going to depend on that, and if think if the current sort of mystery continues, the new mayor in January may be faced with a situation where the city is spending the rainy day fund … and will have to decide how much of that surplus we’re going to dip into, and if there are going to be cuts in government to lessen the impact on the surplus.”
Stycos acknowledged layoffs might have to be considered, given that the majority of the city’s budget is tied to personnel. Raising taxes during the current fiscal year, he said, would require an “extreme emergency situation” – but an increase would be among the options for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2021, planning for which will begin soon after the new mayor is inaugurated.
Elsewhere, Stycos said the next mayor will “have to look at postponing capital expenditures that are going to raise the debt service over the years.”
Fung’s legacy and school funding
Stycos said he agrees with the assessment that Mayor Allan Fung remains popular in the city and that voters view his administration as having spent responsibly while holding the line on taxes.
He believes, though, that significant increases in state education aid to Cranston in recent years – a nearly 50-percent hike since 2014 – have been a “huge part of that, [Fung’s] being able to do that.” During the same timeframe, he said, the city’s local contribution to the school district has increased 3 percent.
“The state has carried the load, primarily, for increases in school funding,” he said. “Now, with the state just about broke, or beyond broke, the choice is going to be, it looks like, without federal aid, is the city going to pick up that ball, or is it going just to let the schools decline? So that, I think that’s the backdrop that I worry about.”
Stycos said as mayor, he would continue to be “supportive” of the city’s schools and work to provide them with needed funding.
Asked how he pitches himself to voters who hope to see a continuation of Fung’s fiscal record, he said: “What I say to people is that, I try to cut the budget in areas, and I would do the same thing as mayor. I don’t just think of things to spend money on … I’ll make those tough decisions.”
Stycos also said he has not yet started forming an administrative team, calling that “inappropriate” at this point in the process. But he said that if elected, he would keep some members of Fung’s administration in place.
“I certainly would retain some people who are in the Fung administration. I think some of them do an excellent job. And I haven’t talked to anybody about jobs, and I’m not going to,” he said.
He added: “I want to say to the people who work at City Hall that I’m going to look at people fairly, and I’m not just going to say, ‘Oh, you know, there’s a job I can hire one of my friends for.’ I’m not going to do that. I want an administration that is capable and competent, and that includes some people that have worked for the Fung administration.”
Preserving neighborhoods and city’s ‘unique’ character
Efforts to combat climate change and conserve open space have been a frequent focus for Stycos during his time in office.
Recently, a $5 million climate bond question he proposed – designed to provide future funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects – received unanimous approval from the council to appear on November’s ballot.
During the interview, Stycos said he views his work on these issues as part of a broader approach to preserving what makes Cranston unique and attractive – particularly the diversity of its neighborhoods, from the more urban areas in the eastern part of the city to the large, open spaces on the western side.
“Cranston’s pretty unique … I think it’s important to preserve those characteristics,” he said.
He added: “I think the neighborhoods are the most important part of our city.”
Stycos played a key role in the creation of a local tree planting program, which has led to the planting of 200 trees at Cranston homes over the past six years.
“It’s not spectacular,” he said. “It’s a slow improvement, but that’s going to improve the neighborhood.”
He has also started a pair of community gardens, most recently at Arlington Elementary School. He said investments like the gardens “cost the city almost nothing” and provide a “great source of recreation” for residents who might not have space for gardening at their home or apartment.
“I think we need the city to have recreation for everybody, all ages,” he said.
In keeping with efforts to maintain the city’s character and preserve open space, Stycos has criticized and stood against a number of development projects. He cited last year’s successful push to amend the city’s solar ordinance to prevent the further spread of large-scale projects in Western Cranston, as well as the successful opposition to a proposed Cumberland Farms to the corner of Park and Warwick avenues – a project he said would have been devastating to home values in the area.
Stycos said as mayor, he would work to change the way in which the city approaches large-scale development projects.
“I have been critical of the mayor and the Planning Department … From my vantage point on the City Council, it seems they fall at the feet of anyone who has a development proposal, rather than sitting down and saying, ‘If you want a zone change, then we’re going to have to make this project a little more palatable to the neighborhood,’” he said.
He added: “I think we have to look at major development projects. Protecting the neighborhood around them has to be a major priority.”
Stycos also noted his past opposition to tax incentives, saying the city needs “to be fair with all businesses.” During his tenure, he said, the council has approved tax deals for businesses such as a yoga studio, a restaurant and a foot doctor’s office.
“I voted against those because that’s not fair to the other restaurants, and the other yoga studios, and the doctor’s office certainly doesn’t need help on paying taxes,” he said.
In terms of the Costco-anchored Cranston Crossing development that has been proposed at the Mulligan’s Island property, Stycos said at the time of the interview that he was withholding judgment pending further review, although he was concerned over the project’s environmental impact.
He has since come out in opposition to the proposal, saying through a statement: “It should be dumped into the trash pile of damaging projects along with the Cumberland Farms gas station proposed for Edgewood and unregulated massive solar power facilities in Western Cranston.”
Making Cranston’s workforce more reflective of its increasingly diverse population is another issue on which Stycos has been consistently vocal.
Based on 2018 U.S. Census estimates, he said, people of color make up 28 percent of Cranston’s population – and just 3 percent of its municipal employees.
“That number has not improved in 12 years,” he said.
Stycos said he would “make a big attempt to recruit people of color, qualified people of color, for city jobs.” He also spoke of the need to provide additional support at City Hall for residents who speaker languages other than English, particularly Spanish.
“We need to make it so that everybody feels like this is their city … You have to make it known that Cranston is looking for the best people of all different shapes and sizes,” he said.
Asked if he feels the city’s Diversity Commission has been effective in working toward those goals, Stycos said: “I could have been on it, and I decided not to be on it, because I didn’t think it was going to be an effective tool … I think that a diversity committee could be effective if the mayor and the mayor’s administration want it to be effective. But without that, I think it’s just spinning your wheels.”
Stycos additionally pointed to a recent proposal he co-sponsored with Donegan to provide bid discounts to Cranston-based, women-owned and minority-owned businesses during the city’s procurement process. That approach, he said, would “keep money in the community” while expanding access to segments of the community that have historically enjoyed less access to city contracts.
Elsewhere during the interview:
* Regarding the school reopening process, Stycos said: “I think the most important thing is public health, and not rushing back to school because all of us want the kids to be back at school.” * Stycos spoke highly of the way Fung and Gov. Gina Raimondo have managed the COVID-19 crisis. “I think they’re done a good job, and particularly the governor … She’s been very good, and the mayor has been very good, at communicating what the situation is and what’s happening. And they’ve been following public health guidelines,” he said. * Asked if he will support the Democratic nominee for mayor if he does not win the primary, Stycos said: “I expect to.” * While significant changes are in store on the City Council, with five seats open in November’s election, Stycos said thgere is a “very good group of people running. He spoke highly of several Democratic candidates, including Paul Bucci in Ward 6 and Jessica Marino, Larry Warner and Paul Archetto – which whom he previously served on the council for several years – for citywide seats.
“I think it’s extremely important who gets elected to the City Council, and I hope that we get a Democratic majority on the City Council this time, because that will make a difference no matter who’s the mayor,” he said. *Asked about the growing divide among progressives and more moderate Democrats in Rhode Island, Stycos said: “Many people associate me with the progressive wing, but I think city government, you know, we just don’t argue about those hot-button issues as much as the legislature does. We’re not going to make a decision on abortion. We’re not going to decide to raise the income tax on corporations or high wealth people. So I don’t think it really applies that much on the local level, and I like to think of myself as a progressive, but also somebody who is really tight with money. I don’t have huge spending projects that I’m looking forward to.” * Asked about the presidential race, Stycos said he is supporting Democratic nominee Joe Biden – and he urged others, including Republicans, to do the same.
“I think that we have to, all of us, as citizens in a democracy, have to say that this is just unacceptable, and we’re not going to put up with it, and we’re going to vote for somebody who’s not Donald Trump,” he said. “And that doesn’t mean that you have to agree with Joe Biden on everything, but he’s a decent human being … [Trump] is really dangerous to our society, and I think he has us at each other’s throats.”