WESTERLY — The Town Council is considering asking voters to approve borrowing up to $3.5 million to be used to address the town’s deteriorating roads.
The request, if approved by the Town Council, would appear as a question on the November ballot, asking voters to approve a bonding initiative for money to be spent on paving, drainage, and sidewalk improvements.
Town Engineer Paul LeBlanc told the council that the town would have to spend $1.2 million a year on paving each year just to keep the roads in their current condition. There is just $500,000 in the current municipal budget for road paving.
“As much money as you can give, we can spend because that’s how bad the infrastructure is,” LeBlanc said.
Town Manager Michelle Buck reminded the council that the Board of Finance had recommended borrowing through a bond as a means to take pressure off the annual municipal budget.
“These items should be borrowed, the operations budget cannot bear the request and needs of the town,” Buck said.
Drainage problems are a near constant topic of discussions for Buck and LeBlanc.
“The complaints and the drainage issues do not stop. We, on daily or weekly basis, have to make a determination as to priorities, what we have to address and what we can put off to another year,” Buck said.
The problems came in to sharp relief when a sinkhole developed in front of the post office on High Street during heavy rains on July 4. LeBlanc said he was concerned that a temporary repair made to a decades-old culvert that ruptured is not adequate to handle even small storms. A permanent, proper repair could cost as much as $1 million, LeBlanc said.
Councilor Jack Carson said he was concerned that other drainage pipes in the downtown area could be compromised as well. LeBlanc acknowledged Carson’s concern but said the systems at lowest elevation, such as the one on High Street, are likely to fail first because they undergo more intense system pressure than the others.
Councilor Christopher Duhamel inspected downtown streets during the July 4 storm and found that stormwater flowed “like a river running down the street” in areas with older drainage systems, but that areas with more modern systems drained properly.
Councilors made it clear that the condition of the town’s roads is on the minds of residents. “A lot of people are upset,” Duhamel said.
Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr, said residents are “screaming on a daily basis about the roads,” demanding to know when routine paving will occur.
LeBlanc said about $600,000 worth of paving will work will go out to bid later this month or in August. The funds to be used are a combination of money from the 2013 budget that was set aside because of concerns that other road projects might go over budget, and the $500,000 in the current budget. John Street, which is in particularly bad shape, will be repaved this year, LeBlanc said.
In addition to the paving work, LeBlanc said $6.5 million worth of other road and drainage projects will go out to bid in the new fiscal year that started July 1. Those projects include completion of streetscape improvements on Bay Street and work on Cross Street.
After the council approved deferring the 2013 paving projects, councilors asked that this year’s projects be put out to bid early in the year so work could take place in the spring to assure residents it would be done and to avoid possible weather problems that can cause additional deferrals in the fall. The early bidding did not happen, a fact that did not escape notice.
“As of today no streets in our town are being paved, so yes, I’m upset. We said go out and hire someone else, farm it out, but pave the streets, we said pave the streets,” Cooke said.
LeBlanc said he shared the council’s frustration and noted he had requested additional personnel, in December, to add to a three-person staff, but had not received the help.
“This is a year of $6 million to $7 million in projects being overseen by a staff of three people. It’s too much,” LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc started his position in November 2012, a few weeks after Superstorm Sandy. He said he inherited several projects with design problems and other deficiencies.
For instance, he said, the town was at risk of losing $2 million in federal funds for the Canal Street/White Rock Road reconstruction project because his predecessors failed to obtain a title opinion — legal documentation of the granting of easements for road and drainage work that encroaches on private property.
LeBlanc said his staff expended 300 hours obtaining the documentation, which has delayed reimbursement from the federal government.
Duhamel and Cooke pushed for an increase in the use of consulting engineers and other firms outside of town government, freeing LeBlanc to serve in more of a clerk of the works capacity, overseeing and monitoring projects.
Councilor Dianna Serra praised LeBlanc for his attention to detail and said the council believes the engineering department is understaffed.
Buck also defended LeBlanc.
“In the short time I’ve been working with him, I’m so very impressed. I rely on him on a daily basis, he’s very professional and dedicated,” Buck said.
She also reassured the council that road projects on the immediate radar will be accomplished. “We hear your message loud and clear and we’ll get it done,” she said.