EAST PROVIDENCE — Some six months back on the job as acting city manager has Paul Lemont feeling bullish about East Providence’ prospects and as enthusiastic as ever about the city he’s called home his entire life.
“I think we’re definitely on the up-tick,” Mr. Lemont said during a candid interview conducted in his City Hall officer Friday morning, May 16.
“I’m still really upset about the whole Budget Commission business,” he continued. “Had someone been in this position who really understood the budget process between the schools and the city, then I don’t think there would have been a need for the commission. But the two sides had become so hardened in their positions, they became immovable.”
Since being hired on an interim basis in November of last year, Mr. Lemont has attempted to edge parties out of those once intractable positions. He believes he’s succeeded for the most part, but the job he held previously for 14 years has changed in the decade since he was last in it.
“I’m still trying to come to grips with some of the things the Commission did, like the consolidations and the sales of some of the properties. There shouldn’t have been a need for it,” Mr. Lemont admitted.
He continued, “I’m not totally negative about the Budget Commission. At the time, that’s the way they saw to get things done. It’s how they got there that bothers me. To me, the Budget Commission coming into the city is the most embarrassing thing we’ve faced. It said we were incapable of doing it ourselves, and I don’t believe that to be true. But some of the people in place before the Commission was appointed were in over their heads, and that’s how it happened.”
Mr. Lemont is learning how to share with his counterpart on the school side, Superintendent Kim Mercer, consolidated directorial positions like that of finance, facilities and IT. He’s also accepted the assistance of Municipal Finance Advisor Paul Luba, who holds the position mandated through the state’s distressed municipalities legislation.
“Paul Luba has been a good set of eyes and ears here,” Mr. Lemont said. “He’s been able to tell us if he thought we would run into some trouble doing something one way or if we had the latitude to make it work. He’s been a good help on a number of matters.”
Mr. Luba most recently played a role in crafting ordinances pertaining to a moderate schedule of increases to the city’s water rates and a bond ordinance aimed at improvements to water system infrastructure, the latter seen by the acting city manager as a key component to East Providence’s overall economic health and standard of living.
“I believe it’s essential to the future of the city,” Mr. Lemont said of the $19 million bond for water system repairs. “I saw the (City Council) vote (against) the first time and I marshaled (Public Works Director) Steve Coutu and (water system manager) Jim Marvel in here and told them we couldn’t let this go. It was just too important for us to just pack it in and walk away.
“We worked on it. We brought each Council person in here one by one and explained it to them. We expressed the importance of this issue, and fortunately we were able to turn (the vote) around. It’s going to cost money. Everything we do costs money. But to keep putting it off, to continue to worry about the future health and welfare of our residents, just didn’t make any sense. We needed to get this done, start the process of fixing the system.”
The increases to the water rates are one aspect of making the revolving fund, some $1.5 million in arrears, whole again. Another was attempting to recover in excess of $2 million in long-unpaid bills.
“We’ve collected over $1 million in delinquent water bills since we started,” Mr. Lemont said of the effort he began over the winter. “We still have over a million out there, but we’re working on deals with people. Now that they know we’re collecting, they’ve been scurrying in here to catch up. No one likes to shut off people. I certainly don’t. But there was like a brush-it-off attitude. People weren’t paying, but we changed that. We’re trying to be understanding. If someone absolutely can’t pay, we’re trying to do everything we can for them.”
Mr. Lemont said he planned a discussion with the state’s congressional delegation to see if there is any federal program in place to assist low-income families and the elderly with their sewer bills. He said he may also propose changing billing from quarterly to bi-monthly in an attempt to avert such a future gap in payments and collections.
When Mr. Lemont took over as manager, the city’s fire stations were well on their way to being refurbished though the schedule of renovations to Stations 1 and 4 were significantly lagging. As he did with collections, he said he swiftly went about tackling the problem.
“The fire stations are just about done now, thankfully. Nobody knows the amount of work that has gone into this,” Mr. Lemont said. “I can’t say enough about the person I hired to manage the project, Ernie DiSaia. He knows more about construction than anyone I know. He was finally able to get it done. He really took the task to heart and pushed and pushed to get it to this point. We are over budget, and we’ll have to pick up that extra cost, but we were too far along to really do anything about it.”
Mr. Lemont declined to specifically state how much over the $6-plus million project, paid for through the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act , the city must cover, but said it will be discussed shortly during upcoming conversations about the Fiscal Year 2014-15 budget.
“Some decisions made early on, I wouldn’t have done,” he added. “Station 1 should never have been expanded. I would have torn it down and started from scratch, things like that. But, again, without Ernie’s effort the project would have languished.”
The police department, likewise, was mired in conflict between Chief Joseph Tavares and several of his officers. The acting city manager was a bit more pragmatic on this topic, but he eventually helped bring it to a resolution over the last few weeks, brokering a retirement agreement with the chief announced Tuesday, May 13.
“The whole situation was unfair to everyone involved,” Mr. Lemont explained. “I believe the chief is a good man, but it would wear on anybody, the constant pressure going on over there. And when he came to see me after coming home from his visit to Cape Verde, told me about his life-changing experience, it appeared to all of us this would an opportune time for him to depart. We were able to come to an agreement where we can all move forward.
“My plan is to name an interim chief. Depending on if it comes from within the ranks or not, someone is going to have to move. If it is from within, then two people will be moving. I don’t know how long I’ll be here, but I want to observe that person to see if they can calm the department down, get it back to where it was before all this began.”
Mr. Lemont said he yearns for the way some things were before locally, when East Providence three times was a finalists for “All-American City” honors, which recognizes excellence in the aspects of finance, education and community among other criteria. He knows he doesn’t have much time left to affect change in his hometown, but would like to be considered by the Council to man the City Manager post permanently for a bit longer.
“I’m not a kid anymore. At some point, I’ll have to look to do something else, but I would like to stay. There wasn’t much of a learning curve when I took over. I came right in and it was if I’d never left,” Mr. Lemont said. “I’d like to stay for maybe another year-and-a-half or thereabouts, so that I can really get the city stabilized and moving forward in the right direction. I think we’ve started to do that, and I’d like to be able to finish the job.”
Mr. Lemont is currently attempting to iron out new contracts with the fire and police departments. He also pointed to the Kettle Point and Gulf Oil property construction plans off Veterans Parkway as two important projects where proper oversight will be necessary. He also noted the water system improvements and the beginning of much-needed road repairs as a couple others.
“There are a lot of things about to happen that I just don’t want to walk away from,” he said. “I know I can’t do this forever. I know I have to eventually move on, but I’ve put my name in for the job full time.”
Whether he gets the job or not, Mr. Lemont believes under his recent stewardship East Providence is on the verge of regaining its place as a destination, not one of departure.
“I just want people to understand we’re truly on the up-tick. There are a lot of concerned city employees and Council people working hard to move us in the right direction. And I think very shortly people are going to start to see those improvements,” Mr. Lemont added. “It’s going to cost some. There’s no way around it. I wish things were done differently in the recent past, but I can’t change that. But I think when it’s over we’re going to be dancing off the stage at the end of the play, feeling good about what we’ve accomplished.”