By PAUL J. SPETRINI
NORTH KINGSTOWN—In the months leading up to Tuesday’s 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 “unacceptable situation” 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.
“Well, I’m not surprised,” NK Town Council member Carol Hueston said Wednesday. “In this economy, I’m not surprised. I don’t 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 Allen’s Harbor so I’m not sure that the voters understood that and maybe we didn’t make it clear enough.”
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.
“I’m not necessarily surprised,” Embury said. “I think most folks are in a non-spending mode although I’m 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.”
“First gut feeling, I was disappointed,” NK councilman Michael Bestwick said. “It 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 department… if all of that was under one roof, it definitely would have saved us money in the long run.”
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 “bare bones” 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.
“The idea was put forth, in fact, to be a long term savings for the voters,” he said. “They chose not to go with an expense, I think primarily with this economy, and we’ll move on.”
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.
“We’re going to put a specification together for an advertisement and get approval to advertise it and we’ll move on from there,” Embury said. “We’ll see what comes back for a response.”
“I don’t think it’ll be a quick decision but over the next year or so I’m sure we’ll discuss what our intentions are,” Bestwick said. “I’m glad they passed that because if that sat empty, again, it’s 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.”