WESTERLY — The nine candidates seeking election to the Town Council fielded questions on affordable housing, the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on municipal finances and other topics Thursday night during a forum organized by the League of Women Voters South County.

Most of the candidates were at their residences for the virtual forum but a few answered questions from Council Chambers at Town Hall. The moderator, Antonia Ayres-Brown, a news reporter for Rhode Island Public Radio's Newport bureau, read questions that were submitted in advance by citizens and league members.

Christopher Duhamel, an incumbent Democrat, said the draft version of the municipal Comprehensive Plan offers several ways to address the town's struggle to meet affordable housing goals set out by state law. He recommended rehabilitating rental property in the town's North End as one potential approach.

A few councilors noted that young people who grew up in the town find it difficult to afford to buy a house here. Philip Overton, a Republican candidate who previously served two terms on the council, said there "is no magic wand" solution to the affordable housing quandary, but agreed work should be done.

"To have a robust community where young families can thrive you do need an appropriate amount of affordable housing," Overton said.

Suzanne Giorno, a Democrat incumbent candidate, said efforts to lure employers to the town should coincide with work to provide more affordable housing. "You have to have a broad approach," she said.

Some councilors said teachers and police officers cannot afford to live in the town, but Dylan J. Lapietra, an Independent candidate, spoke up for those further down the socioeconomic scale, saying individuals who work in hotels in the town are also in need of affordable housing.

Lapietra was less clear on how to approach municipal finances during the pandemic, saying he would not reduce education funding but was not familiar with the municipal budget. "I don't know the budget. I've never seen it," he said.

Sharon Ahern, an Independent candidate seeking a second consecutive term on the council, reassured voters. "Don't panic, we are doing very well. We're not at a crisis point," Ahern said.

If a need for increased fiscal restraint arises, Ahern said, she would push for maintaining funding "for the basics," such as public safety, public health, the sewer system, the public drinking water system and the Public Works Department, which takes care of roads and other infrastructure.

"Other than that you have to be very bare to the bone," Ahern said.

Brian McCuin, who is seeking a second consecutive term as a Democrat, said "everything would be on the table" if a severe fiscal problem developed. McCuin, as he frequently does, described himself as "the cheapest sun of a gun you'll ever meet."

Jarraid Michael Belanger, who is making his first run in elective politics as an Independent, said he would push for across-the-board spending reductions "so no specific group takes the brunt of it."

The current council was cautious in fashioning the current municipal budget and is monitoring it closely, Giorno said. She said she would defend the town's contributions to social service agencies that serve the town and pointed to the transfer station as a potential area for savings, noting the facility currently operates at a loss.

While pockets of the local economy, such as restaurants and the entertainment industry, have been hard hit by the pandemic, the town's overall economic health is solid, Overton said.

"We're in a very fortunate situation because we have a very resilient tax base, so I don't see any doom-and-gloom scenarios. If anything, we've seen a lot of investment in our shoreline areas during COVID," Overton said.

Karen Cioffi, who is seeking reelection as an Independent, said the current council had identified parts of the budget that could be reduced or projects that could be deferred if the pandemic led to a need for new austerity measures.

"The budget has to remain fluid. … We have to be very careful and look for spots we might have to manipulate. If needed, we could institute a spending freeze or hiring freeze. We could back up," Cioffi said.

Nearly all the candidates focused on the council's recent decision to sell the Tower Street School Community Center when asked to explain their vision for commercial and residential development and preservation of open space in the town.

Caswell Cooke Jr. defended the council's unanimous decision to sell the property rather than follow the Planning Board's recommendation to hold onto the community center portion of the property and sell the remaining land. He said the decision came down to selling the Tower Street property or the former Bradford School property.

"I think there is a need for a community center and recreation programs. What makes sense is selling Tower Street because it should bring in $2 million. Selling Bradford is not going to get $2 million," Cooke said.

The Bradford School building should be transformed into "a state of the art public recreation facility," Cooke said.

"We had to make a choice. We were the leaders in this," Cooke said.

Ahern said she was hopeful a private organization would develop a proposal for use of the Tower Street property. "We could maybe keep that as open space. I haven't given up hope," Ahern said.

Belanger questioned the wisdom of establishing a community center in Bradford, saying the village is too remote. Lapietra offered a similar view. "I would have been inclined to keep the central location (Tower Street)," Lapietra said.

Cioffi questioned whether the Bradford School building would be used if it was transformed into a community center, but said she voted to sell Tower Street because she does not want to "store" municipal buildings that are no longer used.

The town will come to regret selling Tower Street if a sale goes through, Overton said.

"I understand why the current council wants to sell, but I think that is shortsighted. That is one of the few centrally located properties that is available for future growth. I think down the road citizens are going to say we should not have sold that property," Overton said.

A link to a recording of the forum will be posted on the League of Women Voters South County Facebook page and on the League of Women Voters RI website at lwvri.org.

The league will present a forum featuring candidates for the School Committee, state House District 37 and state Senate District 38 on Thursday at 6 p.m. The candidates for House District 38, incumbent Brian Patrick Kennedy (Democrat) and Donald Kohlman II (Republican), both said they were not available for the forum, according to league officials. The forum can be viewed live by visiting https://www.westerlyri.gov/Candidate-Forum.

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