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SOUTH KINGSTOWN â€“ In 2008, Larry Fish could sense the economy going south.
Two years later when General Treasurer Gina Raimondo promised to remake the state pension system that was dragging finances across cities and towns, Fish found hope in a dismal business climate.
When Raimondo came to the South Kingstown Town Hall last month on Sept. 15 to meet with the community to discuss the pension crisis, Fish, owner of Pier Cleaners on High Street and member of the South Kingstown Economic Development Committee was chosen by the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce to represent South County business owners.
Sitting at the podium with Town Manager Stephen Alfred and Raimondo, Fish had not realized at the time heâ€™d be such a strong voice for small business owners. But, after speaking with him Raimondo requested Fish to use his story as she presented her plan to save the state from its $7.3 billion unfunded pension liability to the special legislation session two weeks ago.
Fish was one of several community members who Raimondo brought as guests to the legislature.
As a small business owner who has felt the crush of the economy, Fish storyâ€™s reflected what many small businesses have experienced since the recession hit the country and what they may continue to face without pension reform.
â€śRhode Island is ranked as one of lowest in country as business friendly. Being a business person in Rhode Island, I can understand why. This biggest issue for the health and future of the state is the looming pension fund,â€ť Fish said.
In 2008, Fish said businesses felt an unwieldy tide coming.
â€śEverything was doom and gloom in the news. People started losing jobs and businesses were cutting back. We were the same way. We werenâ€™t immune to it,â€ť Fish said.
As the economy went sour, Fish said customers started having their clothes cleaned less.
â€śYou had to cut back. Everyone did,â€ť Fish said.
Four years ago in the summer at the peak of the busy season, Pier Cleaners employed 70 employees, including 45 full-timers. This past summer, there was only 50 employees, including only 35 full-timers.
â€śItâ€™s not that we wanted to lay off people. Itâ€™s the worst experience. Youâ€™re sick. The employees werenâ€™t replaced,â€ť Fish said. â€śWhat we had to do to survive is get more efficient, more productive and get very lean.â€ť
To do that, Fish said Pier Cleaners invested in a new hot water unit that saves the company thousands per year in energy costs, automatic assembly conveyers to assemble more items with less people, and they reorganized the production facility so it is more fluid and efficient. Fish said his company also invested in smaller vehicles to decrease delivery costs. Pier Cleaners also got greener.
â€śWe donâ€™t exhaust into the atmosphere from dry cleaning operations and we reclaim the fluids so that itâ€™s being condensed down. We can reuse the solvent, saving thousands per year to not have to keep buying solvent,â€ť Fish said. â€śWeâ€™re recycling, using recycled plastic on our clothes and recycled hangers. This is being lean.â€ť
Fish said both his family and employees are working harder and smarter for the same or less money than they received five years ago.
â€śWhen there was fat on the bones, there is none anymore,â€ť Fish said.
When Raimondo came to the South Kingstown Town Hall in September, Fish told her â€śI donâ€™t know what party youâ€™re from. I donâ€™t care what party youâ€™re from. I want to thank you for taking the bull by the horns and not being an ostrich. You should be commended. Youâ€™re walking into the water where there are a lot of sharks. For you and the legislature to solve this, youâ€™re going to have to walk on that water.â€ť
Fish said he was glad the General Treasurer was at least trying to solve the problem.
If the General Assembly does not pass pension reform in November, Fish questioned how the state is going to have enough money to pay promised benefits and where the money would come from.
â€śThe biggest issue for me as a taxpayer and for towns is whether they are going to take money from the towns? Is there going to be another tax on small businesses? Or is it going to trickle down to the taxpayer?â€ť Fish asked. â€śI know as a business owner I canâ€™t afford anymore business taxes.â€ť
Fish said he is not anti-union and not anti-state employee, some of whom are already challenging the bill. But, Fish supported the proposed legislation.
â€śI think the bill they have presented is the best possible bill that can be enacted and withstand the legal challenge and solve the crisis at hand,â€ť Fish said.