NARRAGANSETT – In an intense meeting Tuesday night, the town council in a split vote elected to offer for sale the property in the Pier Marketplace intended as the site for the town’s future library. The motion was approved despite hours of public testimony against its passage.
With the town’s current library on Kingstown Road only staying open due to state waivers that allow its continued operation despite numerous violations of both ADA and fire code, the town closed on a $2.8 million deal with Gilbane, Inc. in October of last year to purchase property in the Pier Marketplace to be used for a future town library. That property included the approximate 18,500-square-foot former Belmont structure, the 3,000-square-foot building currently occupied by Pier Liquors, a loading dock and a number of nearby parking spaces. The November election, however, shifted the council that approved the October deal to form a three-person majority that did not support the project in its current form. However, two elected candidates in support of the deal, councilors Jesse Pugh and Patrick Murray, received the first and second-most votes in the election, respectively. Reasoning from dissenting councilors, who include council president Matthew Mannix, council president pro tem Jill Lawler and councilor Rick Lema, has included the financial impact of the deal, the location of the property and potential conflicting services of the expanded future library with the town’s community center. Since the election, the fate of the project has been up in the air, causing many residents to rally for its support by showing up to council meetings en masse and speaking in favor of the new library in the pier.
Such was the case Tuesday night, when the Narragansett Town Hall filled to capacity with supporters of the project, waving signs with messages against the passage of the motion to sell the property. Before the public was allowed to speak, however, (a previous council vote moved the open forum portion to the meeting’s end), the council offered its views on the topic.
Pugh disputed a number of claims made by Mannix against the project. That exchange is detailed in another article in this newspaper. Pugh also presented a letter from Gilbane, Inc., the sellers of the property to the town, which cautioned against the town’s move to sell the space, as the company said the deal was worked out with the understanding the property would be used to house a library in the future. Portions of the letter were read aloud by Pugh Tuesday.
“Gilbane made concessions and accommodations to the form of sale and supporting a subdivision all under the premise the town would be moving forward with building out the Belmont for the agreed-upon use–a new town library,” the letter read. “These concessions included additional footprint to allow for future building expansion, extraordinary cross easements, elimination of certain common-area maintenance items and an overall cap on controllable common area expenses.”
“These concessions would not have been made had it not been planned for the town’s new library use,” the letter continued. “The specter of this town council reneging on the previous council’s vote by now voting to sell the building is shocking, extremely disingenuous and completely counter to the spirit of cooperation that led to the fulfillment of the citizens’ majority vote to house a new library in the center of town, at the Belmont. It is contrary to the intent of both the seller and buyer, who negotiated in good faith and made extraordinary concessions with the clear and unambiguous understanding this building would be used for a library.”
Pugh said the move to sell the space would open the town up to possible legal action.
Lema, in stark contrast to his statements at a previous meeting held on Jan. 14 that the new library would have to be considered in the context of other town projects, proposed relocating the library to town-owned property on Clarke Road and building it akin to Tiverton’s $11 million library.
“Why can’t we build a brand new structure from scratch?” he asked Tuesday. “Yes, it would be a lot of money. But a brand-new structure, state of the art, everything the way you want it, planned from the beginning, just the way you want it. Why wouldn’t we look at that avenue? Yes, it would take to re-bond, and it would take a little bit of time.”
Lema said he would vote in favor of submitting a request for proposals (RFP) on that project. Mannix, Lawler and Lema have stalled the submission of the RFP for the proposed site in the Pier. As such, no professional cost estimate exists for the project. Supporters of moving the library to the former Belmont structure found Lema’s proposal to come too late and doubted its sincerity.
Lawler said she has met with the state’s office of library and information services (OLIS) and the town’s bond counsel regarding the project.
She added that she still had reservations about the project, including the size of the building and its future usage conflicting with the services provided by the town’s community center.
“The concept of a modern library, I can see how that fits in many larger cities and towns [with populations over 15,000],” she said. “We’re a small, seaside community. Do you see town-owned buildings that you would call modern or top of the line? What the library board of trustees was doing is looking to build a community center, which I understand is their same idea of a modern library, but the town residents did not vote for the library board of trustees to build a community center.”
Murray then presented a PowerPoint that showed the total cost for the project to be $10.5 million over 20 years, a figure Murray said would amount to an annual cost of $33 for the average homeowner in Narragansett after other factors, such as fundraising and a likely 43 percent state reimbursement on the project, were taken into account. Murray also proposed the sale and/or leasing of the current library space once the project was completed to generate additional revenue for the town to offset the total expense. The councilor said Gilbane had a case of seller’s remorse, and also contested Mannix’s logic, eventually stating that the only valid reason he saw in Mannix’s anti-library sentiment was the concern over common area maintenance (CAM) fees, annual costs to the town for the upkeep of its share of the plaza. Murray also presented a PowerPoint slide with an image of a $100 bill that had been altered to feature Mannix’s face in its center portrait.
“CAM charges were certainly a concern for me,” said Murray. “When we were going to purchase it as a condo, the CAM charges were $78,000 per year. But under ownership, Gilbane carved out 1.3 acres and [town] ownership of that lot, we were able to drop that down to $38,000 per year.”
Murray also took issue with Mannix recently being appointed town council president in a 3-0 vote at the council meeting Nov. 19, a meeting Pugh could not attend due to a planned vacation, referencing Pugh’s top vote-getter status in the 2018 election and Narragansett’s history of appointing the candidate who received the most votes to the council president position.
“You came in third [in the election], and you had enough of a mandate to take the presidency away from the kid here,” said Murray, referencing Pugh, to loud applause from the audience.
Murray also disputed a number of claims made by Mannix in an interview in the Jan. 18 edition of the Narragansett Times, stating he believed many of Mannix’s factors to not move forward with the project in its current form to be “canards.”
After the council had spoken, the public, which had been instructed by the town’s police chief to remain orderly prior to the meeting’s start, formed a line that reached around the town hall’s assembly room. Over 30 people spoke in favor of the project, with just two against. The testimony lasted over two hours.
“You said that you represent the voters of Narragansett,” said resident Nancy DeNuccio. “What voters? Not the ones we encountered this past weekend.”
DeNuccio then presented a petition she said had been signed by 990 voters of the town in support of moving the project forward. DeNuccio said about another 190 non-residents had also signed in support.
“If fiscal responsibility is your goal, this vote is against your goal,” said resident Chris Schafer, who went on to argue against Lema’s proposal. “Plan b is to reconstruct the Tiverton library. That cost $11 million. If we start plan B today, best-case scenario, that project gets completed in five years. Pulling Turner construction data, 5.86 percent is the cost of construction inflation. $11 million over five years? That’s $14.6 million, $3.6 million of that cost just for delaying to plan B. Any alternative from this point forward needs to take into account all construction inflation costs and to add to that deficit from the number that Mr. Murray presented.”
“[Mannix’s interpretation of a library] is the perfect definition of a university or school library,” said resident Patricia Cole. “I find it hard to believe that your definition of a public library is so archaic…A public library is so much more than a quiet place for study and honing analytical and research skills. A public library serves all the needs of its community - from babies to seniors and our town librarians know best what those needs are. The Belmont site offers the space in which the public library that our community wants, not what you want Mr. Mannix, can become a reality.”
Cole then quoted a section of the Narragansett Code of Ethics:
“‘Intriguing your office as a public trust, public servants should diligently and in good faith pursue the public interest to the best of their ability and subordinate self-interest to the public good,”’ read Cole from the Code’s section titled “Public Trust and Public Servants.” “Given the outpouring of support for the library over the past two and half years, can you honestly say that you have in good faith pursued the public interest? Putting the library site up for sale, the site this community believed was for our new library, is an outrageous betrayal of public trust…I urge you to vote no to the sale of the Belmont site.”
“It seems there’s a big turnout for the library, I haven’t heard too much against the library here tonight,” said resident Jason Howell. “I think children need a place to have more activities in this town. I think parks and rec could expand, but I think the library would provide that opportunity for children. There is not a lot of activities for children in this town. There’s a lot of bars and restaurants. I’ve been to the library with my kids when it’s crowded and is uncomfortable for children to even be there.”
“I think you’re making a big mistake” Howell continued. “The voters voted for this. Who are you to tell the voters no? I think that’s ridiculous. Matt [Mannix], you need to do this for all the people that are here.”
Resident Win Hames, chair of the Democratic Town Committee, said a petition to enact voter initiative, a clause in the town charter that allows residents to potentially challenge council rulings, was being pursued, and that injunctions would be filed against the council to prevent the sale of the building while that process was being carried out.
Despite the extensive public comment against approval of the motion, and fruitless, last-minute negotiating attempts with dissenting councilors, with Mannix stating “the time for compromise has passed,” the motion to put the property up for sale passed 3-2 with Mannix, Lawler and Lema voting in favor and Murray and Pugh against. After the motion passed, the gathered crowd exited the building and were joined by both Pugh and Murray, who did not participate in the rest of the meeting.