Pay hikes receive council’s backing

By DANIEL KITTREDGE
Posted 9/25/19

Proposals to increase the pay for Cranston’s next mayor and boost the compensation of City Council members received the council’s approval Monday, sending both measures to the desk of Mayor Allan …

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Pay hikes receive council’s backing

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Proposals to increase the pay for Cranston’s next mayor and boost the compensation of City Council members received the council’s approval Monday, sending both measures to the desk of Mayor Allan Fung.

The first of the two ordinance amendments, which would increase the mayor’s pay from $80,765 to $105,000 starting in January 2021, was approved on a 5-4 vote.

Council President Michael Farina, Citywide Councilman Ken Hopkins, Ward 2 Councilman Paul McAuley, Ward 4 Councilman Ed Brady and Ward 6 Councilman Michael Favicchio supported the measure. Citywide Councilman Steve Stycos, Ward 1 Councilwoman Lammis Vargas, Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan and Ward 5 Councilman Chris Paplauskas were opposed.

As originally proposed, the increase in the mayor’s pay would have taken the salary for the city’s chief executive – which has remained unchanged since 2002 – to $125,000.

The council’s Finance Committee amended that to the lower figure earlier this month. The committee also removed a portion of the proposal that would have provided for annual 2.5 percent cost of living adjustments, or COLAs, for the mayor’s office.

Fung, who is leaving office before the pay increase would take effect due to term limits, voiced strong opposition to the original proposal. During the Finance Committee debate, however, Daniel Parrillo, his director of administration, signaled approval for the lower salary and the removal of the COLAs.

The second ordinance amendment – which would increase compensation for council members from $4,000 to $6,000 and raise the council president’s pay from $5,000 to $8,000 starting January 2021 – was approved on a 6-3 vote. Stycos joined the majority, with the vote otherwise unchanged from the split on the mayoral pay proposal.

Monday’s debate was relatively brief, with council members largely reprising the arguments made at the committee level.

Favicchio, who co-sponsored both proposals along with McAuley, said he believes the increase is long overdue. He also noted that many employees of the city and the Cranston Public Schools currently make more than the mayor.

“There are so many people working for the city that make far more than the mayor, not that that should be the only barometer of how we pay mayors … I don’t think [the increase] was outlandish. I think it brought it to some degree of reasonableness,” he said.

Brady, who is part of a group that owns multiple restaurants, said he approached the issue from an “economic standpoint.”

“If I didn’t give my employees a raise in 19 years, I think they would all leave me … I think you get what you pay for,” he said.

Brady also said he believes the increased compensation for council members will help make seeking local office more appealing and allow Cranston to “recruit the best people possible” to represent our city. He said some residents who might otherwise be interested in local office do not pursue it because of the time commitment and their need to work a second or third job to supplement their income.

McAuley said he opposed the initial proposal of a $125,000 salary for the mayor, but that increasing the pay to $105,000 is reasonable. He also defended the council increases, noting that they would not affect the current members and that the council’s pay has not been raised since the 1980s.

“This isn’t something that we’re doing mid-term to give ourselves a reward. That’s a misstatement that I found a bit offensive … We’re not in it for the money,” he said.

Donegan said discussion of a mayoral pay increase – which the council last took up in 1999 – is a “perfectly legitimate conversation.” He added, however, that he feels other priorities – such as support for a local rental assistance program – are more deserving of attention and funding.

“I just have different priorities of where that should go,” he said, noting that he applied the same reasoning to his opposition to the council increases.

Paplauskas said he has given the issued much consideration, but ultimately decided he could not support the proposed increases.

“We just had a small tax increase, and I’m just not comfortable with raising the salaries at this time,” he said.

Vargas said she had initially been inclined to support the pay increases, but was swayed by feedback she received from the public.

“I have to go based on what the constituents, the voters of Ward 1, have expressed,” she said.

Stycos – who with Donegan has sponsored a proposal to set a minimum wage of $12.75 an hour for city employees – also called the rental assistance program “critical.”

“I think often, elected officials lose touch with the reality of what most people are going through on a daily basis to earn a living. I think $80,000 is pretty good pay,” he said.

Regarding the council increases, however, Stycos said he agrees with Brady’s point that the additional compensation may make serving in local office more accessible to a broader segment of the community. He said believes the $6,000 figure is “very reasonable.”

He added: “When I tell people how much the council is making, usually the next thing they say is, ‘Oh, yeah but you get Blue Cross, right? For life?’ No, we don’t get health insurance.”

Cell tower lease rejected

In other business, the council on Monday unanimously rejected a proposed lease with Crown Castle Towers 06-2 LLC for use of city-owned located behind 493 Phenix Ave. as the site of a cell phone tower and access road.

The lease agreement – which would have paid the city $36,000 annually for use of the site – was introduced by Fung’s administration earlier this year. It was met with opposition from some council members and residents, who argue that the land in question is a unique natural and recreation resource for the city that should not be disturbed.

A representative of the applicant for the lease appeared before the council Monday and drew criticism after acknowledging that Crown Castle is currently in negotiations with a neighboring property owner to renew a lease agreement for an existing tower.

The representative said the company’s agreement with the city is meant to provide a safeguard to ensure continuity of service, including for major cellular service providers and first responders. But council members argued that the company was in fact using the city for leverage in its talks.

Paplauskas offered perhaps the strongest language in opposition to the lease, asserting that the council was unwittingly being used as a “negotiating tool” and saying he was “insulted.” He said he had received a significant amount of constituent feedback in opposition to the lease.

“In my fifth year up here, I’ve never seen another business use this chamber as a negotiating tool,” he said.

Farina also spoke of the public opposition to the project, saying the vote against the lease was “respecting the will of our constituents.” Several members of the public spoke in opposition to the lease on Monday.

Stycos reiterated his opposition to the lease, calling the site in question a “very unique natural area” that “looks probably roughly the way it looked 100 yeas ago” and has a great deal of value as a recreational resource.

“If this council were to approve this lease, you would have a hammer to bang over the head of a private property owner in your negations … I think that’s a very bad position for the city to be in,” he said.

Historic district approved for Westcott House

The council on Monday unanimously approved the creation of a new historic district for the Nathan Westcott House at 150 Scituate Ave.

The Westcott House, which was built in the 1770s, abuts the Joy Homestead and sits along the historic Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route.

It has fallen on hard times, however, after its most recent owner – now a fugitive from justice on federal drug charges – gutted its interior as part of an alleged marijuana growing operation.

After that owner’s indictment earlier this year, the property was seized by the U.S. Marshals Service. It was put up for sale through a local contractor, and in August its status was listed as “under contract.” The online listing has since been removed.

Sandra Moyer, president of the Cranston Historical Society, expressed concern the new owner would demolish the house due to its condition.

While it initially appeared that no viable resource or alternative existed, Stycos subsequently reached out to the Planning Department at Moyer’s request regarding the possibility of pursuing the historic district designation in hopes of preserving the structure.

Moyer spoke in favor of the historic district during meetings of the Planning Commission and the council’s Ordinance Committee earlier this month. She was traveling Monday, but Gregg Mierka, resident manager of the Sprague Mansion, spoke on her behalf. A descendant of the Westcott family also addressed council members.

Net metering proposal

At the outset of Monday’s meeting, Farina announced that Fung’s administration had pulled a proposed net metering agreement with Southern Sky Renewable Energy from introduction as new business.

The administration intends to instead conduct a bidding process for the net metering arrangement, he said.

Southern Sky is the developer behind commercial-scale solar energy projects off Lippitt and Natick avenues. Net metering arrangements provide credits for renewable energy contributed to the electric grid.

It was not immediately clear what the financial implications of the proposed agreement with Southern Sky would have been for the company and the city, although the text of the ordinance submitted by the mayor’s administration refers broadly to “long term benefits and savings” for the city.

“The taxpayers of the City of Cranston would substantially benefit by the municipality entering into a net metering finance arrangement,” it continues.

The proposed agreement drew wide attention following the appearance of a story on the website GoLocalProv. The issue of commercial-scale solar development has been the subject of ongoing debate in Cranston, with a moratorium in place on such projects as the city develops new regulations.

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