CHARLESTOWN — Residents expressed differing opinions Monday on a proposed community and recreation center at Ninigret Park. The Budget Commission has determined that the town has approximately $3,095,000 that could be used for such a project.
The town's recommended fiscal 2020 budget is $30.3 million, a 6.4 percent increase over the current budget of $27.7 million. The property tax rate would remain at $9.64 per $1,000 of taxable value.
Nearly a third of the $3 million windfall will come from a decline in Charlestown's enrollment in the Chariho school district. The money has been the focus of the community center debate with many, including a majority of council members, seeing the funds as making it possible to build something that the town currently does not have.
Others believe the cost of a community center, which would be built in Ninigret Park, where there is no public water or sewer system, would far exceed $3 million and the money might be better spent elsewhere.
Council President Virginia Lee described the discussion at Monday's budget hearing, attended by about 45 residents, as reasoned and respectful.
“There were different points of view, of course, disagreements over the issue of the community center,” she said. “The conversation was respectful of one another, people came prepared with their positions and articulated them clearly and it was just exactly what I would hope for, a dialogue in the town.”
Council Vice President Deborah Carney said some residents attending the hearing were unaware that the project was a line item in the town’s proposed budget. “There were people there last night that are not happy about this because this is the first they’re hearing of it,” she said.
Lee said a five-member ad hoc committee, to be named as early as May 13, would seek public consultation and foster further discussion throughout the community.
“There needs to be a dialogue, they need to explore,” she said. “A survey would be fine, but it needs to be more than that. It needs to be people talking to one another in town."
The issue, Carney said, is that the cost of building and running a community center with all the amenities would probably far exceed the $3 million. Carney cited the example of the South Kingstown recreation center, built in 2017 at a cost of $6 million.
“That was just for a rec center,” she said. “It has indoor basketball courts. It has public water. It has public sewer. Obviously, we don’t have those at Ninigret Park in Charlestown.”
Lee said the budget would be $3,095,000 and no more.
“The question is, how much money's there and for that amount of money, no more, what could be built for a community center," Lee said. "This is what there is, so this is what we’re talking about and this is what we would design for. The decision of the ad hoc group and the input may well be that it’s something else.
Carney also took exception to the proposed location of the facility at the north end of the park, which has been described on the Charlestown Citizens Alliance website.
“What they are telling people on their website as to where this is going to be, either it’s already been predetermined and this whole process is a farce — where is this coming from? There’s been no public discussion.”
Two petitions are currently circulating, one from the Charlestown Citizens Alliance supporting the inclusion of the community center funds in the proposed budget, and a another, from Charlestown Residents United, calling for a town-wide survey conducted by an objective entity to determine what residents want before including the funds in the budget.
For Lee, a community center would provide services that town residents have needed for decades.
“The idea that maybe there would be funding for a community center, which has been talked about in town for 30 years, a place for people to gather, particularly in bad weather, year round,” she said. “In my mind, it’s ideally, it would double as something like a basketball court, a sports facility especially for the older kids. We’ve got plenty of playgrounds for younger kids. We don’t have that much for older kids, or for any of the kids in bad weather. Also, it could be an emergency shelter, which we don’t have in town, and it could be built in such a way for amended space for whatever is needed, including town meetings where there are more than 100 people, in which case we can’t even hold them at the Town Hall.”
Carney said it was misleading to tell residents that a community center could be built for $3 million.
“When you take into account the reality of the situation, they’re not going to be able to build a fraction of that,” she said.
Voters will weigh in on the budget, which will include the $3 million for a community center, at the Financial Town Referendum on June 3 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.