Town Council Meeting: May 8, 2023
Excellent Town Council meeting on May 8. After much discussion and input, we agreed to endorse two bond proposals for a public referendum in the fall: one for a new public safety complex and a new middle school, and the second for an indoor recreation center. We consider a new police/fire complex to be a "must." The existing structure is some 70 years old and has far outlived its useful life, with leaking roofs and walls, lack of dedicated space for female changing rooms, inadequate holding cells, garage that is not large enough to accommodate modern fire-fighting equipment, people working in closets, etc. Construction costs have skyrocketed and are only expected to get worse, so waiting on this project would only make it more expensive. SImilarly, the existing Wickford Middle School is 90 years old and beyond refurbishment. Walls and floors are cracking, the school lacks a modern HVAC system, interior steps are dangerously vertical, elevator is small and located in a closet, lockers are so small they do not fit coats and books, etc. The school department has done an outstanding job of patching, but the physical plant is clearly inadequate. School department's solution is to combine the two middle schools into one new, modern campus at the site of the existing Quidnessett Elementary School, expand middle school to incorporate grades 5-8, and better utilize the resulting space in the elementary schools. We will utilize Green Building techniquest to the extent possible, so that we are building for the future as well as the present. State funds are available to reimburse school costs up to 52.5%, an increase of 17.5% over the usual reimbursement rate, if we move to confirm this project by December. The expected cost of the middle school project is up to $168 million, so the state's extra portion is significant -- we want to be able to take advantage of the offer. So the actual cost of this project to our taxpayers would be less than half of the bond total, assuming the state reimburses us fully. The cost of the public safety complex is estimated at up to $55 million, and that is based on building at the existing location or other land that the town owns. The Town Manager and Fire Chief pledged to keep working to find ways to reduce that cost. While an indoor recreation center is a "nice to have" rather than a "must," residents have pointed out that it has been on our wish list for some 25 years. Multiple speakers talked about how an indoor rec center would benefit the entire town. There was also discussion of including a swimming pool in the project, but the Town Manager and Recreation Director shared information suggesting the costs of building and then maintaining a pool would be prohibitively expensive in light of our other, urgent priorities. So the bond proposal will not include funding sufficient to build a pool as part of the rec center, although we were promised that the site would be large enough that we could add a pool at a future time if desired. The bond proposal will seek $25 million for the rec center. We all realize that bond proposals of this size are shocking. But we also believe they result from a failure to keep up with our needs over a long period of time. If we don't invest in our community, we only hurt ourselves. Bond counsel expects that even if we take on all three projects, our S&P bond rating would remain at the AA+ level, and our financial team estimates that even taking on the debt level of these projects, our debt level would be under the amount limited by law. We hope all residents will come out in the fall and vote on these three proposals, so that we can accomplish what our community most wants and needs. NOTE: Council President Mancini recused himself from the vote on the bond issue, out of concerns for even the appearance of a conflict of interest with his day job. While I have never seen even the slightest indication that Mr. Mancini uses his role on the Council to further his personal interests, I applaud and respect his decision.