This year was 'money' for North Providence

This year was 'money' for North Providence

North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi announced at a press conference held at North Providence Town Hall on Jan. 11 that the Department of Justice had granted permission for the town to use $20.6 million of the $60 million in Google cash to fill the police pension. (Breeze photo by Elise Manahan)
Our top 10 stories of 2013

NORTH PROVIDENCE - Money matters were front and center from the start of 2013, and it was almost all good news for a town that had often been left reeling in previous years. This year highlighted the distinct benefits that money, lots of money, can mean for a town like North Providence.

While business development was stagnant for much of the year, the spending of the town's 2012 Google winnings more than softened the blow and helped contain taxes to only a minimal increase.

The "Google money" dominated conversation in 2013, with residents debating everything from who should have ultimate control over it to how it should be spent.

Though there was no earth-shattering scandal to speak of, North Providence still saw its share of controversy in 2013. There was the ethics decision against former Finance Director Maria Vallee and the decision by Mayor Charles Lombardi to keep her employed, to the controversial $41,000 payout to former school facilities director Armand Milazzo.

There was the brouhaha over the plowing mess after the February blizzard, the court case over the police officer whose wife's spying helped get him fired, and the fallout from the questionable disability pension to firefighter Stephen Campbell.

There were also a few reminders of the 2010 bribery scandal involving three town councilmen, from the indictment of developer Richard Baccari Sr. on conspiracy and bribery charges to the ongoing court case over the land once targeted for a supermarket. Town officials want to purchase the property for a possible centralized middle school.

There was also plenty to cheer about in 2013, from the success of local sports teams to the good deeds done by young and old. There was the rapidly spreading "Random Acts of Kindness" campaign, the SlamDiabetes event that raised money for diabetes research, the town-wide Project Neighborhood Watch, and construction of a new wheelchair ramp paid for through the Little Heroes Fund, among many other great stories.

The following are our top 10 stories of 2013 for North Providence. Let us know at what you think should be added or subtracted.

1. The Google infusion

It's hard to downplay the impact of a $60 million infusion of cold hard cash, but when you're allowed to use it on items that will directly benefit local taxpayers? That's money.

After months of lobbying the U.S. Department of Justice to use a third of their money to fill a gaping and seemingly insurmountable hole in North Providence's police pension fund, Mayor Charles Lombardi got the shocking news he'd been waiting for in January.

Lombardi, flanked by state and federal officials, announced that the town had received rare permission to use the money on something not typically allowed. The mayor had waited on pushing for other applications for the Google money until after he got the permission for the pension fix.

There were plenty of other smaller expenditures approved by the Department of Justice, like new Ford Interceptors and Dodge Chargers, a new police substation at Camp Meehan, new equipment throughout the police department, and a new shooting range in Johnston, but none directly benefitted local taxpayers like the pension payment. The cash infusion provided an immediate boost to public safety in town and saved taxpayers nearly $1 million a year.

2. The new Camp Meehan

Residents started to see firsthand this year the benefits that can come with the acquisition of open space land and the recreation grants that come with it. The town scored even more grants to overhaul and improve its new Camp Meehan property, bringing the total received for the open space tract of land to more than $1 million.

The Champlin Foundations awarded the town another $176,000 in grant funding this month to improve the newly expanded Notte Park and Camp Meehan facility, which was purchased in 2012.

The gift, which will go toward completing upgrades to a newly acquired recreation building at Camp Meehan, brought the total outside funding obtained for the property, from both the Champlin Foundations and the Department of Environmental Management, to $1,020,000, according to Mayor Charles Lombardi. With the grant from the Champlin Foundations, there will be very "minimal costs" to local taxpayers for upgrades at the new park, he said.

It was June of 2012 when town officials paid $500,000 for the 15.5 acres of former Camp Meehan property on the Wenscott Reservoir to Gateway Health, formerly Capital City Community Centers, but $300,000 came by way of the open space grant from the DEM.

3. Officials find efficiency, savings by merging maintenance

Almost immediately after Mayor Charles Lombardi's plan to combine the town and school maintenance departments was implemented this spring, officials started reporting an uptick in efficiency and savings.

Led by Jim Fuoroli, who now heads the joint department, maintenance workers painted classrooms, re-lined parking lots and made improvements to the high school's football field and concession stands.

School officials said this year that the town's schools are in their best shape in a long time thanks to the combining of departments.

"We're really pleased with the merger," said Supt. Melinda Smith in August. "It's refreshing to see that these schools have come to life."

Meanwhile, the savings are expected to reach $200,000 a year, which is due in large part to the nearly $80,000 salary paid to former schools facilities director Armand Milazzo, who was let go in the consolidation.

Apparent success with the merger comes after some trepidation from School Committee members, who eventually approved the plan in March without seeing any official plans or data.

4. An 'A' grade

Seven years after Mayor Charles Lombardi took office to a credit rating one grade above "junk" bond status, representatives from Standard & Poor's Rating Services announced this month that they had boosted the town's rating two spots, from "BBB+" to "A," a strong indicator of the community's improving fiscal health.

It is the town's first "A" rating in 34 years, according to officials, and a boost all residents, whether they're homeowners or not, should be "very happy" about.

A sparkling bond rating makes a community an attractive place to both home and business owners, said Lombardi.

"I always knew the answer to improving the quality of life in our town was to improve our financial health," he said.

While he is "happy, elated, and excited" about the bond upgrade, said Lombardi, "in no way am I satisfied."

The bond upgrade will save the town big money on current debt and future borrowing, according to Lombardi and Finance Director Justin Cambio. With a better bond rating comes lower interest rates.

Kimberly Welsh, a managing director with Janney Capital Markets, raved about the job North Providence officials did to get an "A" grade. In a Dec. 4 letter to Lombardi, Welsh said North Providence's comeback "is the most impressive turnaround" she has seen over 25 years in the business.

5. No privatization

Local union members packed Town Hall in November to voice their opposition to a finalized plan to privatize the Department of Public Works, only to learn that a bid by Cardi Corp. to run the DPW had already been pulled off the table.

Council President Kristen Catanzaro announced the decision, drawing loud applause from dozens of union members from North Providence and surrounding communities.

Mayor Charles Lombardi has not given up his goal of having a private public works department he believes would run at a lower cost and provide better service to town residents than it is now.

Lombardi said he believed the questions coming from some Town Council members about whether Cardi would be able to handle certain duties, like snow plowing, ultimately led them to pull their bid.

Council members, led by Catanzaro, had said they simply wanted assurances that all information submitted by Cardi as part of a request for proposal process was accurate and that the company would be able to provide the services needed.

Lombardi still plans to revisit the privatization idea next spring.

6. Random acts of kindness

A local "Random Acts of Kindness" campaign started by a group of local Scouts inspired residents as it spread across town. Cub Scouts from North Providence's Pack 33 were asked by their leaders "to try and change the world, or just a piece of it, using only $1," according to Cubmaster Lauren Banna.

Scouts were given some examples and ideas, like taping money to vending machines or buying a flower for a stranger, but it didn't take long for pack members to come up with their own ideas, too.

Scouts went way beyond buying a sibling a piece of candy or a toy, getting creative with the $1 they'd been given, baking cookies for neighbors and purchasing a hat for a homeless person, among many other acts.

Parents of the Scouts later got in on the action. One parent left a $5 bill at McDonalds with a note saying that the Scouts were "trying to change the world with one random act of kindness." The woman who received the $5 toward her meal, "Janet," wrote an e-mail to an e-mail provided by Banna telling the Scouts how surprised she was. Janet then took the $5 and used it to purchase 40 Christmas cards for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. She also made a $5 donation to raise cancer awareness.

The local spread of the national "random acts" phenomenon followed the shooting deaths of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last December.

7. Schools see influx of new technology

North Providence kids have become more tech-savvy this year thanks to a focus by Supt. Melinda Smith and new Technology Director David Wright on creating technology-enabled classrooms.

The tech boom started with library media centers for both middle schools in town, along with computer literacy instruction.

North Providence High School students were also given access to a Virtual High School pilot program that allows students to take courses online if they are not available in school.

In the elementary schools, each classroom in grades 2 through 5 will be outfitted with $2,500 worth of technology, which Smith anticipated would be in place by January.

That equipment includes an interactive projector with stylus, a document camera, speakers and a whiteboard for each room.

The elementary schools' upgrades have been funded using $60,000 from the Feinstein Foundation, $30,000 from the Kids Klub fund, and money collected through individual school fundraisers and pooled together.

The district is also planning to lease nearly 500 desktop and laptop computers to get students ready for the online Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exams, which will replace the New England Common Assessment Program in the 2014-2015 school year.

8. Police, school officials focus on increasing security

Following the shooting deaths of 26 people last December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., officials in North Providence put measures in place to ensure school safety remained an utmost priority.

Starting last winter, North Providence Police Department officers committed to becoming even more familiar with the buildings and students as they made themselves a regular presence in the schools.

The strategy had always been used at North Providence High School, but officials extended it to all of the district's schools this year.

This spring, the School Department's budget included $320,000 for fire code and security upgrades.

Mayor Charles Lombardi was also reportedly looking into funding a top-to-bottom overhaul of security systems at all town schools, including new cameras, doors, windows and alarms using some of the $60 million won by the police department last year as part of a settlement with Google.

9. Road and traffic issues

Safety for motorists and the quality of the roads they drive on were hot topics in 2013.

As was often the case again in 2013, Mayor Charles Lombardi and Town Council President Kristen Catanzaro disagreed on everything from which roads should be repaved first to whether stop sign cameras should be installed.

After debate over which roads should be repaved first, Lombardi chose to stick with a list drawn up nearly three years ago and repave local roads as money comes in.

Motorists had to make plenty of adjustments in 2013. There was the new rotary on Fruit Hill Avenue, the shifting traffic configurations at Smithfield Road and Mineral Spring Avenue, and longer waits for drivers turning onto Mineral Spring Avenue at red lights, among others.

10. School administration changes aplenty

This year was a busy one for school leadership in town.

First, as of Jan. 1, 2013, Supt. Melinda Smith started as head of the school department after leaving her post as Lincoln's curriculum director, replacing former interim Supt. Timothy Ryan, who was filling in for former Supt. Donna Ottaviano.

The assistant superintendent position was filled next when, in February, former Woonsocket elementary school principal Lisa Jacques was appointed, which freed up North Providence High School Principal Joseph Goho up from the interim position.

Moving into the spring, David Wright was appointed director of technology. In June, Kimberly Carson was appointed director of special education, filling a vacancy left by Henry Tedeschi when he resigned in February.

By the start of school, there had also been shifts of principals.

Janine Napolitano, the former NPHS English department chairwoman, became the Birchwood Middle School assistant principal to work alongside Principal Steve Clarke, who was also new to the school this year after leaving his assistant principal position at Ricci Middle School last year.

Napolitano replaced Lori Facha, who took Clarke's old job as Ricci assistant principal.

-By Breeze reporters Ethan Shorey and Meghan Kavanaugh

Camp Meehan received plenty of upgrades in 2013, and more are planned for 2014.
Parishioners at the Presentation Church in North Providence saw an image of the Virgin Mary on the cross atop the church. (Breeze photos by Ethan Shorey)
Local residents were mesmerized by what they saw as the image of Mary the mother of Jesus on the cross above the Church of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in North Providence. Patricia Messere, left, a Presentation Church parishioner and North Providence native, brought her daughter, Doreen Nanni, center, and grandson J.P. Nanni, right. Like thousands of others, the trio endured heavy rain to see what everyone was talking about.