The Westerly Town Council’s approval Wednesday of two potentially expensive ballot questions for the November election — whether to bond $6 million for road and sidewalk projects and $975,000 for an artificial turf field — was not entirely unexpected. If you haven’t been under a rock (or stranded in a pothole) lately, you know all about the sorry condition of a great many of the town’s thoroughfares and the shoddy shape of many of its playing fields. The two expenditures, though, share more differences than just the overall price tag.
The road and sidewalk improvements have been put off since the dastardly winter of 2013-14 exacted its grievous toll. It’s hard to find a heavily traveled road that isn’t pocked with potholes or scarred with uneven pavement. Main Street is an obstacle course, and School, John, Cross and State streets seem like a vast conspiracy perpetrated by the makers of automobile shocks, struts and tires. Work by utility companies has compounded the problems. Just a couple of weeks ago, Town Engineer Paul LeBlanc pleaded for as much money as the council could scrounge, “because that’s how bad the infrastructure is.”
Well, the council delivered. Despite talking earlier this week about bonding $3.5 million for road, sidewalk and drainage repairs, they decided on Wednesday to shoot for the moon and ask for $6 million, arguing that $3.5 million would only serve as a stopgap. Notable among the projects planned is the repair of a century-old drainage culvert underneath High Street that has failed twice recently, most recently on July 4 when a large sinkhole threatened to swallow traffic in front of the post office. Admirably, the council realizes that infrastructure repair is the No. 1 civic need, and they were not afraid to budget for what needs to be done. Notably, outgoing councilor Patricia Douglas asserted during Wednesday’s special meeting that “there is a difference between necessities and frills and these are necessities.” In other words, road repair is a need, and not a want.
Falling more toward the “want” side of the ledger is money for an artificial turf field to replace the sodded playing surface at the high school’s Augeri Field. There is an undeniable shortage of playing fields in Westerly, and an artificial turf solution at the high school would help alleviate that by increasing the amount of wear and tear the field could take from its six varsity and two junior-varsity sports as well as various recreational programs.
Initially, proponents of installing artificial turf had sought upwards of $2 million to replace the grass at both high school fields. Deftly, Recreation Commission Chairman Vero Morrone sensed that voters would be unlikely to approve the full amount, and earlier this week scaled back the request to include just Augeri Field, saying, “There’s no way the taxpayers are going to support two but we think they will vote for one field.”
The slimmed-down proposal for artificial turf was the right tack to take. Part of Augeri Field’s woes were caused by improper maintenance on the field. Indeed, in March, Brian Walters of Fair Play Turf Services, hired by the town in 2013 to develop a maintenance plan for the fields, said a plan for Augeri Field was never implemented because of the impending push for artificial turf. “I stand fast on the fact that this field was unplayable,” Walters said, “that I would not have put a child on this field, it was unsafe.” With a sensible field-maintenance plan, the town’s grass fields could be made safe for at least the foreseeable future.
Even though Stonington has been happy with its recently installed artificial turf field, putting the same kind of playing surface in Westerly falls squarely in the “wants” column. Infrastructure repairs and improvements are firmly entrenched in the “needs” column. We commend the council’s prioritization of these issues in setting these ballot questions, and we trust that the voters will make an informed decision in the fall.