The following presentation was made by the newly elected council president, Chris Semonelli, at the first Middletown Town Council meeting held on Monday, Nov. 19
Before I begin my remarks, I would like to thank all of you who participated in the election process and voted – either for me, or my fellow Councilors, or for those who were not elected to our Council. As involved citizens, you are the backbone of a functioning democracy. We may disagree, but we are blessed with the freedom to express our disagreement and resolve, or at least express our differences at the ballot box. It is a privilege and responsibility I and you take seriously. Thank you for being part of the democratic process!
Bob and I and the entire Council would also like to welcome you, the citizens of Middletown, to this Council’s first meeting. We are especially honored that Senator DiPalma, and Representative Ruggiero are present. We look forward to working closely with you as we work to solve our problems and build our community.
The citizens of Middletown and I expect great things from this Council. I am convinced that by working together we can make Middletown a model for what a constructive, positive, goal-oriented Council can achieve. I know we have differences and will not agree on every issue, but out of diversity and civil discussion emerges strength and, I am convinced, a better way forward.
So what are the challenges and great opportunities ahead of us?
Our number one challenge is the budget. I need not tell you that the burden on our tax payers is great and we need to face the reality that we cannot sustain even 3% compounded year after year. And as we look ahead, the challenge of our budget will only intensify.
In the past few years, pressure on our local budget usually originated at the State level. We have seen a continuous reduction of State resources, and increased mandates. But we are now faced with an additional challenge from the federal government.
Although I believe and hope that the President and Congress can find common ground to resolve our national debt and deficit problems, the fiscal cliff discussions and possible negative outcome can impact our town severely. It is a threat we cannot take lightly. We should demand of our federal delegation the same spirit of compromise and the common good that I think this Council will display. To fail to work together is to fail our friends, neighbors and community. Bob and I believe we should not accept anything less than action based on the common good.
I am certainly not revealing any secrets when I say that we in Middletown have, on occasion encountered politics based on factions. This is not a new problem; James Madison discussed the problem in Federalist 10 .
Madison offered no simple solution – other than open discussion and debate in a civil society. And so it is today, and I hope and expect it will be on this Middletown Council. As the leaders of this Council, Bob and I are committed to reaching out to all members of this Council and especially you, our citizens, and listening to your concerns. Our founders did that, and so can we.
To return to the challenges facing our Town:
Because they see uncertainty, companies in our community are already making plans to adjust staff if the federal budget cuts come to fruition. A reduction in our business community is not something we can simply accept. We will need to do everything in our power to support and grow our local businesses and defense industry. Our self-interest and the common good demand no less.
And the school budget could be impacted in the order of 900k. An unacceptable loss.
But we can meet this challenge by working as a team and proactively addressing this looming problem. This is, of course, a national problem - and we can do little other than express our opinion and prepare for the worst.
Yet we have great opportunities ahead of us - such as the transfer of Navy surplus land which may enable us to finally create a real a town center. We will need to partner with the Navy and pursue discussions with our Navy friends. But it is possible that we can, with common purpose, actually create a new economic base for Middletown, and of even greater importance, improve our quality of life and preserve what is so special about our island home. It is a challenge we must meet.
I hope this Council will update and validate our Town Strategic Plan. We need a guide for our actions that is the product of all our citizens and is available to all.
I know that there has been discussions among councilors about a new corporate park and alternative energy programs to meet our energy needs. And we have all seen the painting of bike lanes in Newport which will, I hope, be part of a walking and biking network reaching from the Sakonnet River Bridge to our beaches. We need to rebuild after Sandy and find a way to improve our beach facilities.
These are not simple initiates and they will require the help and cooperation of our Town committees and Boards and our citizens. But we can and should pursue every opportunity to improve our community sustainability.
The voters of Rhode Island and Middletown have fully supported a continuation of investment in our land preservation efforts. As part of our open space preservation, we now are included in the Island Greenway, reaching from our Wyatt Lane Soccer fields to Portsmouth’s Glen. I am excited about that and expect to work with this Council to continue to preserve what is wonderful and beautiful in Middletown.
Our Comprehensive Plan Review committee is now close to producing a revised land use plan. The new Comprehensive Plan will be reviewed by this Council, so now is the time to decide what do we want our town to look like in the future.
We need to decide now what our town should look like 20 years, not wake up one day and say; ”How did we let this happen?”
We have opportunities that can be realized by taking advantage of the recent charter changes - especially in the area of improving our municipal efficiency. The time to address this is also now, we can do better, and we should.
Middletown is blessed to have one of the best, if not the best managed administrations in Rhode Island. We have a funded Capital Improvement Program that looks ahead at our infrastructure needs, rather than waiting for maintenance failure to create a crisis. We have a strong fund balance and have fully funded our future financial obligations.
We have a school system that cooperates closely with the Town administration and town employees who do a great job and look first at what is best for our Town. To say it simply, we are a blessed community. And we should build on that solid foundation.
As President of the Council, but equally important, a member of our island community, I feel that regionalization of our three school system has merit , and it can be begun by taking baby steps; such as on- line joint language programs and then expand to other curriculum areas. I am convinced that to figure out how to make this work, we need to ask those most closely involved in the process and use their knowledge and ideas. But however we proceed, we need to explore every option and opportunity.
It is a simple truth that our island secondary level schools have suffered from too few students to support all of the quality course offerings we should have. It’s not a school problem, it’s a community problem.
We created a Pay-As-You-Throw program that has produced recycling rates second to none. We need to continue that. We have a robust storm water management program, but we should consider storm water districts. These initiatives can help us to offset significant costs associated with non-point pollution environmental regulations. We need to find ways to share these costs with other partners in our island community.
I know I have talked a bit too long, but I wanted to share with you some parts of my vision for this Council and our Town.
Bob and I firmly believe that by working together with our fellow Councilors, and you the citizens of Middletown, these are things we can achieve.
Today, thanks to the actions of previous Councils, Middletown is in great shape, let’s work as a team to keep it that way.