SOUTH KINGSTOWN – Although there’s no clear financial forecast for the months ahead, council members were in agreement on Monday that they at least want the option of putting a bond before the voters.
The proposed $6.5 million municipal bond would go toward addressing the town’s capital improvement plan and would help finance various projects concerning public safety.
“There are significant things in our town that need to be addressed,” Councilman Bryant Da Cruz said, citing the need for a better communication system among first responders at the top of that list.
The current radio tower communication system, which has been problematic or completely useless at times, has prevented first responders from being able to easily speak with one another when going into some buildings, or even a wooded area of pine trees in one case.
Even last week, when police officers were following protesters and overseeing vehicle traffic through downtown Wakefield and Peace Dale, there were spots where first responders were unable to communicate with each other, according to Fire Alarm Superintendent Lance Whaley.
This next step for the council was agreeing to seek enabling legislation from the Rhode Island General Assembly, though if it’s approved, Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea must also weigh in before it can appear on a ballot. Rather than being locked into the November General Election date, however, the council is asking for a more general, or “blanket” approval, with the option of putting it on a special election ballot later, if they so choose.
If the voters do approve the bond, whether it’s placed on the November ballot or brought to a special election, the funding would also help to repave roads throughout town and extend the Matunuck Seawall.
“I think we’re just one hurricane away from a problem on Matunuck Beach Road,” Da Cruz said, making a case for why the vote should come before voters sooner rather than later. “That would cut off a significant amount of our population and the ability of first responders to respond to that area if something were to happen.”
Originally, when the idea for this municipal bond was first floated, the intention had been to lump it into the same ballot question as the $85 million school facilities improvement bond. Given that the appetite for additional spending has decreased significantly in South Kingstown, considering the current pandemic and financial hardships, the thought had been to hold off on both questions.
“There’s an awful lot of anxiety about public spending right now,” Town Manager Robert Zarnetske said. “Many members of the community expressed grave concerns that we were not reducing spending, and it just seemed that the appetite for public indebtedness and increased spending was just not there at the time.”
Although the town continues to seek other monetary support and grants to at least partially finance these projects, Zarnetske said it didn’t seem like the public seemed comfortable with any kind of increased spending – especially considering the upcoming budget referendum.
“It’s a lot to ask people to spend money, even on things we know are critically important, when they are worried about making their own mortgage or making sure their businesses are staying afloat,” he said.
Councilman Joe Viele suggested the council price out the debt service payments and then find a way to work those savings somewhere else in the budget, avoiding burden to taxpayers.
Despite the unknowns of what the economy and the market will look like in a few months, Viele pointed out that voters will “have the luxury of knowing how the tax collections are going by September or October.” When it comes time to vote in November, or even later if the council decides to put this question before voters, they’ll be able to make a much more informed decision then.
He pointed out the escalating costs that come with road work and other infrastructure improvements.
Da Cruz echoed similar thoughts about escalating costs, worried that delaying improvements could mean needing to fix an expensive emergency in Matunuck at an even greater cost.
Assistant Town Solicitor Amy Goins pointed out that even if the town received permission from the voters, ultimately the decision of whether or not to move forward with the projects is up to the council. She pointed to the Narragansett Library as an example of this.