Nesi’s Notes: Aug. 17

Ted Nesi

Happy Saturday! Here’s another edition of my weekend column for WPRI.com – as always, send your takes, tips and trial balloons to tnesi@wpri.com and follow @tednesi on Twitter.

1. After months of uncertainty and alarm over Warwick’s finances — even from the mayor’s office — we finally have hard numbers. The good news: some of the rhetoric has been too pessimistic. A months-delayed audit shows Warwick ended former Mayor Scott Avedisian’s final fiscal year (2017-18) with $22.7 million in its “rainy day” fund, up slightly from a year earlier. And despite last winter’s warning by Avedisian successor Mayor Joe Solomon that nearly $10 million of those reserves might be gone by June, the city is now telling the state the actual hit was only $2.5 million, driven entirely by a deficit in the school department. The new mayor argues his math wasn’t off — he just took action. “It didn’t come accidentally,” Solomon said on this week’s Newsmakers. “It came with hard work and a tremendous staff to assist me.” Warwick’s biggest short-term problem remains education funding: the schools ran a nearly $3 million deficit in 2018-19 and needed a $4 million infusion from the city to avoid cuts, including elimination of sports in 2019-20. Auditor General Dennis Hoyle is now working with the mayor, City Council and School Committee to figure out a path forward on school funding, though it won’t be easy. Solomon has also brought on Mike D’Amico, a fiscal expert who was a top aide to Angel Taveras during Providence’s financial crisis, to lend his expertise. Over the long term, Warwick faces the same challenge as most Rhode Island cities: hundreds of millions of dollars in unfunded promises to retirees. Moody’s, at least, is optimistic. “Despite its significant long-term liabilities, Warwick’s financial position and credit profile have improved in recent years, supported by a multiyear trend of positive operating performance and a large tax base,” the ratings agency wrote in March.

2. The Solomon clan has quite a reach in Rhode Island politics: Mayor Joe Solomon is the father of Rep. Joe Solomon Jr., the nephew of former Treasurer Anthony Solomon, and the cousin of former Providence City Council President Michael Solomon (son of Anthony). A few years back, RIPR’s Ian Donnis ranked the Solomons one of the state’s 11 top political families.

3. Wednesday evening’s apparent attack on protestors by a Wyatt Detention Center officer — who resigned Friday as law enforcement investigates — has focused renewed attention on the prison. Here are some basic facts: the Wyatt is owned by the Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation, a quasi-public municipal agency created in 1991 whose board is appointed by Mayor Diossa. While the corporation in the past outsourced Wyatt’s management to a private company, it is now run by a board-hired warden, Daniel Martin. And its finances are precarious: the Wyatt’s auditors warned in May that there is “substantial doubt” about whether it can continue operating. Its operations posted $8.3 million in losses over the last three years, and it still has nearly $100 million in outstanding bonds, the driver of ongoing litigation over its future. As for the prison’s population, the Wyatt had 521 detainees as of December, primary sent by various U.S. Marshals offices, but since then has signed an agreement to house ICE detainees — thus the current controversy. Martin told us this week the prison has housed 463 ICE detainees so far.

4. A tough week for Twin River Worldwide, as the casino operator revealed its Lincoln flagship is taking a bigger-than-expected hit from the new Encore Boston Harbor casino. The disclosure sent Twin River stock plummeting on Monday, and by the end of the week the company had confirmed almost 100 job cuts. Encore took in nearly $50 million in July, its first full month of operation. CommonWealth Magazine has some details: “The mix of revenue sources, with $27.4 million coming from table games and $21.1 from slots, turned lots of heads, as casinos nearly always bank more from slot machines. Richard McGowan, a gaming researcher at Boston College, called the Encore mix ‘incredibly unusual,’ and said it indicates Wynn Resorts is having success drawing lots of high-rollers, who gravitate to the bigger-stakes table games.” Twin River executives say they hope things turn around after Labor Day.

5. Hasbro tells me CEO Brian Goldner, a member of the CBS board, will be on the board of the combined CBS-Viacom once their newly announced merger is official. The Wall Street Journal reports Goldner was considered for the job of CBS CEO, too, but he’s staying at Hasbro for now.

6. Two dispatches out of Providence City Hall this week — first up, from my colleague Eli Sherman: “We got a little more clarity this week on why there was so much political firepower behind the City Council’s June push to create a new tax structure in Providence. My colleague Steph Machado and I analyzed more than 30,000 residential tax bills, discovering that 75% of bills went up in the ZIP code 02909, which includes the neighborhoods of Olneyville, Silver Lake and the West End. That section of the city is home to both City Council President Sabina Matos and Finance Committee Chairman John Igliozzi, who championed the failed effort to create a new tax structure that would have given discounts to homeowners on a sliding scale based on property value. Matos tells us she plans to form a commission to study the issue further after the council’s August break, so watch for push back from the city’s richest ZIP code 02906, including much of the East Side, where more than 70% of tax bills cost less this year.”

7. And here’s another dispatch from Providence — this one from our City Hall ace Steph Machado: “Providence leaders got a vote of confidence this week when Standard & Poor’s raised the city’s bond rating from BBB to BBB+. The ratings agency said the city has a ‘stable’ financial outlook and has made financial progress over the past three years, though S&P noted that budget flexibility is ‘very weak,’ with little opportunity to cut costs or raise taxes due to ‘political resistance.’ While the rating upgrade is good news, the agency pointed out there is still no plan to address the $1 billion pension liability after Mayor Elorza abandoned his push to monetize the water supply. S&P also offered this warning about the pension fund, which continues to assume an 8% rate of return on its investments: ‘The aggressive amortization policy functionally defers costs to the future, resulting in increasing costs by design and possibly further increasing costs if the aggressive assumptions are not met.'”

8. Keep an eye on your mailbox: Secretary Gorbea is sending out roughly 120,000 postcards to voters who haven’t cast a ballot in the past five years to determine whether to mark them as inactive, and is asking those who get one to respond accordingly. “Since taking office in 2015, Secretary Gorbea’s efforts have led to the lawful removal of more than 124,000 people from Rhode Island’s voter rolls,” her office reports.

9. Verizon has brought 5G to Providence — at least in spots. The Globe’s Hiawatha Bray offers a mixed review of the service here. Asked why Providence was chosen as one of the company’s first 5G cities, a Verizon spokesperson said, “Our early deployments have been in cities with forward-thinking leaders who understand the value of having this next gen technology in the hands of residents, businesses, and universities.”

10. On the road for August recess: last week Senator Reed was in Alabama to bolster Doug Jones, and earlier this week Senator Whitehouse was in Wyoming to talk climate change.

11. Speaking of climate change, The Washington Post reports it’s here: “Rhode Island is the first state in the Lower 48 whose average temperature rise has eclipsed 2 degrees Celsius.”

12. I always like reading stories about places where an unusually large number of people live to be 100. Well, turns out it’s probably just bad record keeping.

13. Woodstock doesn’t actually look like much fun based on these photos.

14. Is it time for Disney to bring back movies with traditional animation?

15. “Home buyers weary of Greater Boston prices are slipping south to Rhode Island,” reports Boston.com. Welcome to Rhody, fellow Bay State natives!

16. Kim Kalunian and John Villella tracked down the 96-year-old Johnston dad who went viral after tearing up about his sick son in Judge Caprio’s courtroom. Their profile of him will brighten your day.

17. Set your DVRs: This week on Newsmakers – Warwick Mayor Joe Solomon. Watch Sunday at 10 a.m. on Fox Providence. This week on Executive Suite – Luxury Brand Holdings Chairman/CEO Darrell Ross and President James Speltz discuss Ross-Simons jewelry. Watch Saturday at 10:30 p.m. or Sunday at 8 p.m. on myRITV (also Sunday at 6:30 a.m. on Fox or 7:30 a.m. on The CW). Podcast lovers, you can subscribe to both shows on iTunes — get the Newsmakers podcast here and the Executive Suite podcast here — and radio listeners can catch them back-to-back Sundays at 6 p.m. on WPRO-AM 630 and WEAN-FM 99.7. See you back here next Saturday morning.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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