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By PAUL J. SPETRINI
NORTH KINGSTOWNâIn the months leading up to Tuesdayâs special election on three bond questions relating to the installation of artificial turf at McGinn Park and the future of the former Wickford Elementary School (WES) building, North Kingstown Town Manager Michael Embury said voters had to approve turf at McGinn because the current condition of the fields in town was an âunacceptable situationâ where town employees spent a large number of hours devoted to the field that could devoted elsewhere.
Turns out, the only thing voters perceived as unacceptable was spending money.
In a sparsely-attended election that drew out just nine percent of the total registered voters in NK, or a total of 1,795 people, nearly 75 percent of those responding shot down installing turf at McGinn.
âWell, Iâm not surprised,â NK Town Council member Carol Hueston said Wednesday. âIn this economy, Iâm not surprised. I donât think a lot of people understood that the artificial turf was not coming out of taxpayer funds, that it was coming out of the rec budget which is paid for by people who play golf or have a boat at Allenâs Harbor so Iâm not sure that the voters understood that and maybe we didnât make it clear enough.â
As for the WES site, 62 percent of voters turned down renovating the building for use as a consolidated office for both the town and school departments and, instead, voted 986-795 to grant the town the authority to sell the building.
âIâm not necessarily surprised,â Embury said. âI think most folks are in a non-spending mode although Iâm disappointed because we have another empty building on our hands and it really would have been, I think, a positive thing for the taxpayers if we were able to get all of our functions into one building.â
âFirst gut feeling, I was disappointed,â NK councilman Michael Bestwick said. âIt could have been, I thought, a perfect spot to grow for the next 30-40 years for a town hall with shared town services all in one building. Right now you have to go to Brown street for the planning and building inspector vs. going to the town hall and then you have the school departmentâŠ if all of that was under one roof, it definitely would have saved us money in the long run.â
The WES bond question had set out to determine the future for the building on Philips Street which has sat vacant for six years.
In February, the council listened to a presentation from Providence-based Edward Rowse Architects that laid out two options for renovating the building. Last week in a letter to the editor, the council explained to voters that it had reduced those estimates to the âbare bonesâ figures and, all told, the motion would have cost taxpayers an estimated $3,850,000 plus interest over 20 years.
Hueston voted against the decision at the time, saying she felt the estimate was too low a number to do the repairs needed and was not shocked when voters turned the measure down Tuesday, even though she says she was disappointed that the town missed a chance to consolidate.
âThe idea was put forth, in fact, to be a long term savings for the voters,â he said. âThey chose not to go with an expense, I think primarily with this economy, and weâll move on.â
Moving on, in this case, means planning for the potential sale of WES.
Because of the vote Tuesday, the council now has the authority to sell the building without holding another special election.
Neither Embury, Bestwick or Hueston could provide a timetable for the potential sale but the wheels are clearly in motion.
âWeâre going to put a specification together for an advertisement and get approval to advertise it and weâll move on from there,â Embury said. âWeâll see what comes back for a response.â
âI donât think itâll be a quick decision but over the next year or so Iâm sure weâll discuss what our intentions are,â Bestwick said. âIâm glad they passed that because if that sat empty, again, itâs just going to cost the taxpayers more money for upkeep being vacant for that period of time. At least we can get something accomplished with it.â