It seems that Fisher has gotten his sea legs. Woonsocket's bond rating was just rated an A by Moody's, and despite continuing difficulty in addressing the city's pension liability and adhering to the state appointed budget commission's draconian 5-year plan, Woonsocket seems to be turning a corner. When asked what made this transformation possible, Fisher stated bluntly, " I kept my campaign promises."
Immediately after taking office, Fisher hired a full time grant writer for the city. While some local radio talk show hosts skewered him for, "spending money we don't have, on a position we don't need," it seems that it was the right move for the city. Since the position was created, the city has received grants to update the city's aging infrastructure, increase public safety and education budgets, and drive down the overhead costs of the city's government itself.
"It was really a no-brainer," says Fisher, "I knew that there were literally billions of dollars available in grants from the federal and state government, as well as private grants available to municipalities. I thought: Why are we not taking advantage of these sources of revenue?"
The city has received grants in the last 18 months to replace broken and missing fire hydrants across the city, institute 21st century, renewable energy education programs at the city's vocational school, and to institute community-based policing across the city. "I think my proudest moment so far has been replacing those hydrants," said Fisher, "after the job was done, I asked the ISO (Insurance Service Organization) to come to the city and update our insurance profile." After the city was re-rated, homeowners insurance rates went down across the city. "That's a win for every homeowner in the city," he said, "not only did we make our city safer, we saved folks a bit of money in the process." The grant writer position has been revenue neutral so far. Most large grants come with built in administrative costs, which means that the city may be cutting the checks, but the money is not dependent on the taxpayer.
Woonsocket had struggled for the last two decades to draw businesses into the city, but that seems to be changing due to Fisher's progressive - and totally transparent - tax incentive policy. Both strip malls on Diamond Hill Road have seen renewed vigor in the last eighteen months, with mostly locally owned businesses filling long vacant storefronts in what was once Woonsocket's prime retail area.
"When I started thinking about tax policy, I couldn't believe that no one had thought of this before. The only way to incentivize a strip mall owner to keep rents low is to offer them a tax break based on the percentage of square footage occupied. It seemed so simple." Since then, Woonsocket's Walnut Hill development has gone from a 30 percent occupancy rate to a 90 percent occupancy rate. But don't think Fisher is some type of business-desperate softie. "These development owners are required to keep an 85 percent occupancy rate to get the tax break from the city," says Fisher, continuing, "If you're going to dangle a carrot, you should have a damn big stick to back it up."
Fisher's tax policy also extended to existing businesses. In a bold move, he instituted a policy that rewarded existing and new businesses for employing Woonsocket residents. Currently, any business whose workforce is comprised of 20 percent Woonsocket residents gets a 20 percent tangible tax break. "Look, if you're going to run a business in this city, and employ city residents, you should be rewarded," he said, " I don't care if you're CVS or Ciro's Tavern. Put us to work, and this city will work with you, and for you. If you have 10 employees, and two live in the city, that's something."
Far and away, Fisher's most bold and laudable accomplishment has been lowering the costs within Woonsocket's school system. After taking office, he immediately began to solicit bids from solar energy companies to install massive solar arrays on the roofs of the city's most modern buildings: the middle school complex and Harris School. Both of these developments have been constructed in the last ten years, and while they both have some degree of energy efficiency, the solar arrays have decreased energy costs in the buildings by 40 percent. "Again, a no-brainer," says Fisher, "Our schools use a tremendous amount of energy for 9 months out of the year. The other three months, they lie relatively dormant. Why not offset the usage while they're open, and make some serious money selling power back to National Grid during peak demand season?"
Fisher's fourth campaign platform point is proving to be a bit more difficult to realize. Restoring pride in a city that has - for the most part - lost pride in itself, is a Herculean ans Sisyphean task. He attributes this to a local media presence that does little more than to accentuate the negative. "The Woonsocket media makes it difficult to raise any sort of community pride. When you have a local newspaper, and two local radio stations, it could - and should - be a tremendous value to the city," he opines, "Unfortunately, one of those outlets seems hellbent on accentuating the negative aspects of the city with ill-informed vitriol and personal attacks on local elected officials and residents of the city. In my view, anyone who participates in this type of clearly short-sighted and biased journalism is in breach of contract with the American people. The airwaves are ours. Their job is to curate them on our behalf."