WESTERLY — The Town Council on Monday reaffirmed a decision to have the proposed purchase of 360 acres in Bradford, at a cost of up to $1.3 million, be the only question voters consider in a referendum in April.
The decision came after about two hours worth of discussion devoted to whether voters should also be asked to approve spending an additional $1 million to $2 million for one or two artificial turf athletic fields at Westerly High School. About 50 people, including a sizable contingent of high school students, attended the meeting, many calling for a referendum vote on the field proposal.
In the end the council agreed, by consensus, to support including the artificial turf field initiative as a ballot question on the November ballot. The referendum on the land purchase is now scheduled for April 26. Town Clerk Donna Giordano said an earlier date was unworkable because provisions in the Town Charter require a 60 day posting of financial impacts.
A majority of councilors said they were hesitant to add the field question to the April referendum because they felt rushed. They cited a lack of information and concerns that voters would not accept the proposal unless it is properly studied.
Town Manager Michelle Buck called the situation “a little bit tenuous” and admitted feeling rushed in preparing for the council’s special meeting on Feb. 6. During that meeting the council agreed to have the Bradford property question drafted as a resolution for action this week.
Buck also noted that because of repeated snowstorms the council had not yet been able to visit artificial turf fields in neighboring towns. She said she had not had time to study information provided by proponents of the fields, particularly their projections of savings the town would realize through reduced natural field maintenance. Those figures were “hard to believe,” she said.
Council President Diana Serra asked supporters of the field proposal to consider the council’s responsibility to all residents and noted that a variety of other projects, also in need of funding, were considered but not approved as possible referendum questions.
“If I put one other project on and I didn’t put the turf field on, then I would not be fair, but I didn’t do that. We can get there but what we’re trying to do is look at the whole town. We’re trying to address your needs and everybody else’s,” Serra said.
The council needs time, Serra said, to understand the uncertainties and “challenges” likely to come with Buck’s proposed 2014-15 budget, which is due by Feb. 17. The budget, Serra said, is likely to include proposals for equipment that would increase the town’s level of debt. Before committing to the field proposal, Serra said, the council must also develop a plan for replenishing the town’s fund balance or surplus account, which was partially depleted by spending related to recovering from the damage caused by Superstorm Sandy.
Serra said that officials also must consider another upcoming project that will increase the town’s debt: plans to address the town’s aging elementary schools. If not for time limits imposed by the owners, Serra said she would not have approved of the move to schedule the proposed land purchase for a referendum in April. The Bradford property, owned by Mary Lucey, is seen as a desirable acquisition to help protect groundwater that feeds public drinking water wells.
Councilor Kenneth Parrilla promised to help promote the field project for a vote in November but said he was concerned that voters would reject it in April by assuming it was the cause of a projected tax increase.
“My biggest fear, if we push this through for April, is this may go down, that’s what’s scaring me,” he said.
School Committee member James Murano noted that the council had heard from residents both in favor of and opposed to the field plan.
“That’s my point in being right here, give me the opportunity to vote ‘yes’ in support. Give Mrs. Ross the opportunity to vote ‘no,’ ” Murano said, referring to Laura Ross, who asked the council to postpone a vote on the fields until problems with the elementary schools are addressed.
The council’s discussion grew dicey at least once. After the council approved the resolution to put the Bradford property question before the voters, Councilor Jack Carson tried to make a motion to force an April referendum question on spending up to $1 million for one artificial turf field. He withdrew the motion after Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. said it was out of order and illegal because the proposal had not been previously announced or advertised. Carson then tried to force the fields question onto the council’s next meeting agenda.
“My intent is to get the council members on record as either favoring or supporting my proposal or rejecting it so the voters will have something to consider as we move toward the next election cycle,” Carson said.
Cooke shot back: “Then I am very happy to say I am against Councilor Carson’s proposal to put it on in April due to the fact that it will be ramming it down our throats unnecessarily soon and I am in favor of putting two fields on the ballot for $2 million in November and that is my word.”
Councilor Patricia Douglas praised the many residents who attended the meeting and said she was particularly pleased to see the students paying close attention. She said her initial take on the field proposal was to suggest it be voted on in two years when the town’s debt service is expected to be lower. She said a November vote represented a compromise and called for the appointment of a committee, with a cross section of residents, to study the plan. “It would be irresponsible if we moved ahead and rushed” to an April vote, Douglas said.
Jamey Vetelino, athletic director of the Westerly Public Schools, asked the council to reconsider its decision to limit the referendum to the land purchase. Further spending to fix the town’s existing fields would be “irresponsible spending,” said Vetelino, who had emailed well over a hundred residents on Sunday asking them to attend Monday’s meeting. If residents approved borrowing $1 million for one field, he said, proponents of artificial turf would then “work toward the goal” of a second field.
Vetelino also noted that former finance director James Lathrop and the town’s financial advisers had said that Westerly could take on an additional $3 million in debt without affecting its bond rating or ability to borrow in the future.
Councilor Andrew Gencarelli said that although he supported the fields proposal, he had too many questions that had not been answered. He noted that on Monday officials seemed to disagree on whether an April or November referendum would have a substantial effect on when the proposed fields would be ready for play.