Political newcomer Christopher Paplauskas is challenging Democrat Councilman Richard Santamaria Jr., who looks to be re-elected for a fourth term as the Ward 5 representative on the Cranston City Council.
Though new to politics, the Republican Paplauskas has hit the ground running, knocking on doors for nearly six weeks and sharing his vision for the city’s future.
“I’ve lived in Knightsville since 2005 and since then I’ve wanted to be involved in the community,” he said. “I care very much about Cranston and I’ve always had a passion to give back to the community.”
A manger with Falvey Linen, he and his wife Judy have two children, and his parents own the Cranston-based Balloons Over Rhode Island. As a part of the city’s business community, he hopes to expand that base and lighten the tax burden for taxpayers.
“We have to be friendly to businesses. The more people that have jobs in Cranston, the better it is for the city,” he said. “Hopefully we can get some good economic development in the city. Anything we can do to encourage business, I’m for.”
That includes cutting back on fees placed on new or expanding businesses. Paplauskas sees many areas of opportunity for development, and hopes to see empty buildings soon occupied, including portions of the Cranston Print Works facility that are not currently being used.
Vacant buildings, he said, can be a blight on the community, especially as the city struggles to mitigate rodent problems. These are the type of constituent problems he has heard about on the campaign trail, as well as speeding, trash removal and especially infrastructure.
“Streets are in rough shape in Knightsville,” he said.
Paplauskas believes the city will be able to invest in these types of improvements as long as the budget is closely monitored and the City Council works to cut costs. Paplauskas is an advocate for consolidation efforts, in particular, and said he would have voted to support the consolidation of the city and school personnel functions.
“It’s a no-brainer there. Anything we can do to consolidate and save money, without cutting a service we provide, I’m all for that,” he said.
He worries that politics too often get in the way of cost-saving measures like consolidation.
“I’ll look at anything in the budget. I want to do the right thing for everybody in Ward 5,” he said.
Also in terms of the budget, Paplauskas would like to go over the school district budget and closely review contracts, which the council has ratification power over.
“I want to ensure that in the school contract, as much money as possible is going toward educating our students,” he said.
That being said, Paplauskas wants to have a positive working relationship with the Cranston School Committee and believes the two sides of the city can work together to realize savings citywide.
“I definitely want to give an open hand out to the School Committee. I want to try and help them with whatever they need. In the end, we’re all on the same team trying to provide services to the residents of Cranston,” he said. “I’m not going to play party politics. People need to get along.”
Paplauskas says his heart is “in the right place” and he wants to run to help his neighbors and improve his community. He hopes to build strong relationships with his potential constituents, and transparency in government is a priority in his campaign. He pledges to have town hall meetings for voters in Ward 5 and citywide every three months.
“I’d like them to come to the meetings so I can find out what’s going on in the neighborhoods and also let them know what’s going on in the council,” he said. “I want to be straightforward. In the end, I work for the constituents in Ward 5.”
Santamaria has been working for those constituents for six years, and cited several examples of his effectiveness in the past term in particular.
“In the last two years, I’m really happy about securing the funding to get the traffic light at Atwood and Walnut Grove,” he said, noting that the light is scheduled to go up next spring.
With his colleagues on the council, Santamaria successfully lobbied Governor Lincoln Chafee to not strip the city of its PILOT monies.
“We pushed to try and make sure we got our fair share on the tax-exempt properties,” he said.
Santamaria has also been a champion for flood victims, serving as chairman of the city’s Flood Commission.
“I work on the Flood Commission, helping the people on Perkins and Fletcher and Amanda get their problems solved. That’s an ongoing process but we’re moving in the right direction,” he said. “It was a devastating time and the people just wanted to become whole again. We’ve accomplished a lot, but there’s more to do.”
In addition to the property buyouts, the Commission has also overseen an engineering study on Fletcher Avenue, where a floodwall will be erected.
Like his opponent, Santamaria believes that Ward 5 residents have basic concerns that should be addressed, like property upkeep, traffic and infrastructure.
“Infrastructure is a big concern,” he said.
Santamaria would like to see more road paving projects in his area, and at the last city council meeting questioned why the state wasn’t doing its part in maintaining landscaping on state roadways, an issue he has stayed on top of.
Unlike his opponent, however, Santamaria voted against the personnel consolidation, fearing that the council put the cart before the horse by de-funding the director position.
“I just questioned the legality of it,” he said.
As chairman of the Safety Services and Licensing Committee, any new business to the city comes before Santamaria, and he has been pleased with the increasing number of applications. Still, he hopes to do more to incentivize business in Cranston.
“We welcome any business into the city; we want to make sure it’s the right fit,” he said.
He is a proponent of tax incentives in some situations, such as the case with Taco, where he saw a demonstrable benefit to the city.
“I like tax incentives but it has to be tied into meaningful job creation – full-time equivalents,” he said. “In most of these cases, they have pledged that they’re going to hire more people.”
The council, he said, must always work to promote the city.
“I think we’re doing a good job. We want them to know Cranston is a great city to live in and work in,” he said.
Although critics have called this year’s zero tax increase typical of an election year, Santamaria said he was pleased with the budget overall and is confident that the City Council, working with Mayor Allan Fung, can do the same next year.
“Holding the taxes down is going to continue to be my goal. You can’t keep asking people to pay higher taxes,” he said, adding that his goal is, “Keeping the quality of life high and the taxes low.”
One way to keep taxes low would be to bring in more revenue. Santamaria has long been pushing to get a grant writer on staff, either part- or full-time.
“I know there’s federal grant money out there. I still want to get a federal grant writer on the payroll so we can write our own grants,” he said.
Santamaria, who works for the Family Court, took a strong stand on increased expenditures as well. He was notably the only member of the council to vote against every proposed pay increase, including 3 percent raises for administrative staff.
“People are hurting. We have a lot of people out of work, we have a record number of foreclosures and I just couldn’t see giving people raises at this time,” he said. “I just want to make sure that the money is going to things that keep the quality of life in the city of Cranston the way it is, and that’s not in the form of pay raises.”