Last year at this time, I wrote an article titled 2011: The Year in Preview, a look at the issues that would likely face Johnston and their potential effects.
Each item was ranked according to the potential impact it would have on the town; and with the year now finished, it's time to see how my predictions worked out — or, in some cases, didn't.
1. Budget (5/5)
Prediction: This year's budget picture is a little better than in 2010, when cities and town braced for severe cuts in state aid. After three years of level funding from the town, the school department may ask for an increase — but where the money will be found remains an open question.
What Happened: The school board did indeed ask for an increase, but when the town council approved Mayor Joseph Polisena's $89.56 million spending plan in June, it left the school department level-funded for a fourth straight year.
School officials wondered how they would deal with the aging boilers at Johnston High School, among other concerns — and in July, they got an answer from the town in the form of $500,000 in bond funds and another $200,000 in federal and state funds to pay for complete replacement of the heating and hot water systems at JHS.
2. Economic Development (4.75/5)
Prediction: While a major generator of tax revenue, business growth takes time to have an effect on local budgets. For instance, it's not likely that the development at the new Stuart's will reach its full capacity this year — and even if it did, the tax impact would likely take several months to be realized.
What Happened: Just five days into the new year, Shaw's Supermarket announced it would be closing. The nearby Wendy's also closed following damage caused by heavy rains in the spring, leaving that corner of Atwood and Hartford Avenues looking bleak — but by the end of October, Ocean State Job Lot moved into the former Shaw's and brought some life back to the retail property.
The development at the former Stuart's didn't appear to move very much, although the state Department of Transportation completed a major road project leading by the development.
3. Municipal Services (4/5)
Predictions: The biggest change for the town's infrastructure is the new Marian J. Mohr Memorial Library [which] will allow the town's municipal court to relocate from its leased storefront at 1395 Atwood Avenue, where it has been since 1995, to the current library building.
Another major issue will be the staffing of public safety departments. Currently, the fire department is 10 firefighters short of the minimum staffing requirements set by contract.
Whether the town will hire 10 new firefighters, continue to pay the overtime, or decide on some combination of the two, is to be determined.
On the issue of fire department overtime, no major decisions were made in time for the 2011-12 budget, though Fire Chief Timothy McLaughlin, who was hired in March, has made finding a solution a top priority.
4. Politics (3.5/5)
Predictions: Without an election scheduled for 2011, the current team of councilors and school board members have only the management of the town to address. Should the town face another severe cut in state aid, or the school committee have an unexpected increase in costs, local officials' ability (or willingness) to maintain that [previous] cooperation for its own sake may be tested.
What Happened: School officials appeared to take the town's decision to level-fund schools in stride — particularly after the high school boiler work was approved and funded. Overall, the mayor, council, and school board maintained the sense of cooperation through the budget process — no doubt helped by a state budget that stabilized educational funding.
5. Other Issues (3.5 to 5/5)
Predictions: By definition, these issues aren't easily foreseen, and their impact could vary widely. Too many blizzards, and the town could face the real possibility of late-fiscal-year cuts in other departments to cover any shortfall.
Results of the town's ongoing investigation into fire and police pensions could also have a major impact. Continuing efforts to improve local athletic facilities — particularly those at the high school — could emerge as another issue.
What Happened: The biggest unforeseen issue in the town is one that's unseen — the odors emanating from the Central Landfill.
Beginning in mid-September, a previously sporadic rotten-egg smell became a major issue — especially over the Halloween weekend.
State and local officials called hearings, threatened a shut-down of the operations at the Landfill, and called for Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation Director Michael OConnell to resign, while Polisena filed a lawsuit against RIRRC and Broadrock Renewables, the company charged with collecting and burning the gases that caused the stench.
The ongoing odor problem — and the controversy resulting from it — brought attention to the town that all officials agreed they didn't want.
Johnston had fewer than a half-dozen snowstorms between Dec. 26, 2010, and Feb. 16 of this year — but since all of them were relatively major events, the town depleted its snowfall removal budget.
While there were no announced cuts to other departments' budgets, Polisena maintained a rigorous review process for all town spending and managed to minimize the impact of going over budget by some $200,000.
On the pension issue, Polisena appointed six of seven members to the town's first-ever retirement review board in April, with IAFF Local 1950, the firefighters' union, offering retired firefighter Joseph Andriole to the board — a recommendation that the town rejected.
As the board continued its work through the year — including selection of TD Bank to oversee the town's pension funds — the union put up a legal fight on several fronts, including an attempt to stop the pension board's Oct. 24 meeting which was defeated in court.
While the retirement panel's work focused on pensions that may have been incorrectly awarded, the fiscal impact of its work had not been determined by the end of the year.
What will 2012 hold for Johnston? Here's your chance to prognisticate — take our poll and add your comments below.
On Tuesday, Jan. 3, I'll post a new "Year in Preview" article — be sure to watch for it.
Thanks for reading, and best wishes for a happy and health New Year!