The Town Council looked around for challenges last week, but didn’t have to turn its head far to find a big one: $70.65 million in debt service.
With debt service on the $52 million school bond approved by local voters added to the recently built police station, Swift Community Center renovation and road work approved on last November’s ballot, dealing with the load topped the list of goals Town Manager William Sequino Jr. prepared for the council.
Sequino suggested a fiscal sustainability study, to be conducted by the R.I. Public Expenditure Council or a similar agency, could offer the town some guidance on the fiscal challenges ahead.
“With the school budget accounting for almost 70 percent of our expenditures, and a strong feeling that the General Assembly will pass teacher arbitration, the pressure to control spending will all take place on the municipal side of the budget. We need an unbiased look at exactly where we’re going,” he said.
The suggestion drew a mixed reception from the council, with Jeffrey B. Cianciolo supporting it but President Michael B. Isaacs uncertain about the cost of a study.
“I’m not sure what the people could tell us that we don’t already know,” added Mark Watkins Gee. “We’re aware of the unfunded mandates, pension problems and decaying infrastructure.”
Sequino also suggested the council take a hard look at capital improvements, a line item that has been froze the past two years.
“We don’t want to be in a position of deferred maintenance and equipment replacement. We may not be able to do much, but we need to see what the plan is,” he said.
Another item he asked the council to take a look at was commuter rail, with a possible site behind the American Legion hall on Post Road. He conceded that the relatively narrow site would present a logistical challenge, but said his previous experience as town manager in Stoneham, Mass., where surrounding towns had MBTA commuter rail service running south into Boston, convinced him of its merits.
“It makes a town a more desirable place to be, and it made a world of difference in how those surrounding towns developed,” Sequino said.
Gee said a local rail link would be welcome, observing that potential users heading into Providence or points north don’t want to drive south to Wickford to board the train.
“There’s evidence to show it could not only be economic stimulus, but a valuable asset to people who live in East Greenwich,” he said.
Some of the other goals Sequino outlined for the council included:
* Affordable housing. With the town needing to create 366 more units to meet Rhode Island Housing’s mandate of 10 percent affordable housing stock for municipalities, officials should examine increasing the town’s maximum housing density from its current 12 units per acre.
* River Sand & Gravel: As a site being eyed for additional playing fields or other recreational use, public access needs to be improved.
* New England Institute of Technology: The town should establish partnerships with the school’s new campus for training and other purposes.
* Early retirement incentives: A repeat of last year’s program to offer incentives for town employees nearing retirement should be considered.
* Police station firing range: The town should find money in the budget or borrow over a short term to complete work on the range in the basement of the station.