Finding creative solutions to mounting fiscal issues
GETTING TO YES: Warwick Finance Director Ernest Zmyslinski has helped Rhode Island’s second-largest city weather some difficult fiscal times through creativity, diligence and artful negotiations.
PBN PHOTO/NATALJA KENT
By Victor Paul Alvarez
If you want to know what kind of guy Ernest Zmyslinski is, ask his boss, longtime Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian. The mayor nominated the city finance director – known as Ernie to his colleagues in City Hall – for this award. Avedisian praises the man who has been on the finance job since the day he took office as innovative and unflappable.
“Ernie is a quiet man who says little and does not get flustered, but his efforts and his deeds show the dedication to his job,” said Avedisian. “He is soft spoken, but not afraid to voice his opinion and to insist that other options are considered. He looks for new ways to do things, for cooperation amongst employees and for ways to see new collaborations come to fruition,” Avedisian said.
For instance, said Avedisian, “It is normal for me to give Ernie a task that should be impossible to complete only to find him exceeding the expectations.”
Cynics might confuse the mayor’s praise with politics. But there are no politics in numbers, as Zmyslinski tells it. Numbers do not lie; numbers have no agenda.
“Certainly there are politics at every level of government and municipalities are not immune to this,” said Zmyslinski. But, he said, it’s the responsibility of the finance department to provide the decision-makers with the best information to make informed decisions. “As far as the daily work we do, there is no Republican or Democratic way to refinance outstanding bonds to save the taxpayers money,” he said.
Zmyslinski’s no-nonsense approach is working – and the numbers prove it.
Zmyslinski came onboard 14 years ago. Since then the city of Warwick has posted a surplus every year with the exception of fiscal 2011. An audit released on Feb. 20 showed that, for the 11th year in a row, the city received an unqualified audit opinion, the best mark it can receive.
During Zmyslinski’s tenure, the city also saw bond-rating upgrades and the sale of general-obligation bonds at favorable interest rates. “In addition, in any given fiscal year, most municipal department budgets have shown surpluses,” Avedisian said.
The mayor isn’t tuning up his talking points for another campaign. And he’s not boasting about his leadership. He’s talking about the excellence of the man he nominated for this award.
“This is all due in great part to Ernie’s diligence, his frequent contact with department directors, and his continued vigilance over spending reports,” Avedisian said.
Zmyslinski has strongly supported the mayor’s decision in recent years to stop departments from spending additional money (though there were several expenditures approved by voters in 2006), in light of economic conditions. Zmyslinski held firm, even though it didn’t go over well with some officials anxious to move forward with projects.
However, even the best finance man can’t plant a money tree behind City Hall. When things are tight – as they have been in the state for a number of years – difficult decisions have to be made. Zmyslinski is part of a review committee that analyzes the city’s financial health and gives his diagnosis so the situation can be remedied.
Avedisian said the committee has helped reduce the municipal workforce without compromising the quality of services, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars on salary and benefit costs. “Ernie has remained a key member of my administration and an individual upon whom I can rely,” Avedisian said.
When you look back at his 14-year career at City Hall, Zmyslinski’s contributions certainly add up.
He helped craft comprehensive municipal-reform legislation, approved last July, which could save close to $3 million annually. And he continues to roll with the punches, working on pension issues and helping to negotiate municipal contracts that will save taxpayers millions of dollars over the next few years.
“Furthermore, when the state reduced aid to cities and towns in the middle of [fiscal 2009] and [fiscal 2010], Ernie was part of a group of department directors who worked with police, fire and municipal union leaders to get cost savings, outside the scope of contracts, to help us make up that shortfall,” Avedisian said. And with a budget of more than $276 million and 866 employees, the issues involved are not simple.
Oh, and the city finance director does all of his work in the public eye. Newspaper reporters are watching. The public is watching. Decisions are scrutinized by Warwick’s 84,000 citizens, who live in the city, pay taxes and use city services.
An example of the distinction between what Zmyslinski and a nongovernmental enterprise does is the process of adopting the city’s budget, Avedisian said.
Once the budget is ready, the mayor submits it to the City Council for its review. Many budget hearings follow, at which the members of the City Council and citizens can ask questions or give comments on the budget recommendations. When the public hearings are closed, the City Council adopts a budget at a public meeting.
“This process requires detailed knowledge of operations,” Avedisian said. “In the private sector, a budget is adopted by the board of directors without this public discourse and scrutiny.”
Working for Warwick allows Zmyslinski to have a business position with a strong community impact, said Avedisian. This role suits Zmyslinski just fine, said the mayor, as he is a devoted father and husband.
“I have the opportunity to be involved in most of the important decisions that affect the community. Just about every decision has some financial component associated with it,” noted Zmyslinski, whether that means determining the most cost-effective way to purchase a fire engine or providing information used for collective-bargaining negotiations. All are part of helping to make city a better place and for Zmyslinksi to help give back to the community. •