SOUTH KINGSTOWN – The town council was in full agreement on Monday night that now is not the time to be putting bonds before the voters.
The bonds in question, which would cover various municipal projects and significant improvements to the school facilities, would also be asking $92.5 million from taxpayers.
While the town may still be in good financial shape when it comes to credit worthiness, reserve funds and revenue flow, according to Town Manager Robert Zarnetske, many residents has come to him “saying anything you do to take a penny from me right now is going to be impactful, and it’s going to hurt.”
“Though there is some reason to think that this is a good time to do bonded debt,” and other communities have continued pushing forward with municipal projects and school constriction, Zarnetske recommended the council not seek approval from the General Assembly to place municipal bond authorization referendum questions before the voters.
Borrowing rates may be low and schools may be empty, but Zarnetske holds onto concerns “that the balance here is not quite right yet.”
“I don’t think we’re in a place where we know for sure that we can take on $92 million in this environment,” he said.
One of the bond questions, at the sum of $6.5 million, would ask voters to finance various municipal projects from the town’s capital improvements plans. Improvements to the town’s failing radio communication systems or the Matunuck Seawall would only make up a portion of the total debt services, however.
The bulk, an $85 million bond, would go towards improvements to the school facilities. While there would be projects happening across all learning levels, the majority of these funds are planned for the relocation of South Kingstown High School.
Rather than rehabbing the existing high school on Columbia Street, the school building committee has shifted its focus towards improvements and additions onto Curtis Corner Middle School. The current status of the project, though, is another reason for Zarnetske to question moving forward.
“There’s a lot of reasons that suggest we could take on debt at this point,” Zarnetske noted, “but that being said, the high school project is not perfectly well-defined yet, we don’t know what the bottom line on that project is yet, we’re still waiting for numbers and for drawings from the architect that we can engage in a serious conversation about.”
“And that number – the $85 million for the high school at Curtis Corner – is one that I’ve never been very confident in,” he added. “I’d love to be able to talk to RGB Architects once we’ve got their cost estimates and once we’ve got their drawings, and really dig in and find out what that project looks like.”
Based on conversations Zarnetske has had with the town’s financial director and advisors, the uncertainty of the economic climate, and not having numbers and drawings to interrogate, he advised the council not to take those next necessary steps.
“The fact that the project isn’t shovel ready at this point makes me a little nervous,” he said. “I think there’s just a lot of unknowns around this project and I’m just nervous about taking on more unknowns right now.”
Although putting forward enabling legislation would only give the council the option of placing these bonds before the voters in November, according to Town Council President Abel Collins, he was in agreement with the rest of his fellow councilors that residents aren’t in position to take on more debt.
Even if the majority of the council were eager to place these items on the ballot, Councilman Rory McEntee pointed out that since the General Assembly isn’t meeting, they might not even receive the necessary approvals in time.
“At this point in time, considering the economy, considering the state we’re experiencing throughout the world, and particularly in South Kingstown, it’s going to be hard to ask the taxpayers to take on an extra burden,” he said.
In addition to his concerns about debt service payments, McEntee also expressed doubts about whether reimbursement from the Rhode Island Department of Education would even still be available once the project was completed.
“This is not something that we can handle on our own as a town,” McEntee said. “We need that reimbursement. Otherwise, this is just not feasibly possible.”
Councilwoman Deb Kelso, who also sits on the school building committee, had been a huge proponent of putting both of these questions on the November ballot, wanting the majority of voters to weigh in on the issue.”
As much as it pained her to say it, especially since there are numerous, much-needed projects within the facilities plan, Kelso could “no longer be such an advocate for November.”
“It isn’t all wants,” she said. “It’s a lot of needs, and this town has put off those needs for a long time – and it’s reared its ugly head.”
Councilman Joe Viele said he was “okay putting this off,” not only because he was already opposed to the school building plan, but because of the additional stress and financial hardship it would place on community members.
“I think we have to listen to the taxpayer at this point,” he said. “They’re in a place they haven’t been in a long time, and I think they’ve made that clear to us.”