WESTERLY — Members of the School Committee were still hesitant Wednesday to vote to install artificial turf at Westerly High School’s athletic field, but said they were getting closer to a decision as more information comes in, especially about cost and funding sources.
The lack of a vote doesn’t mean there was no progress, as the School Building Subcommittee chairman, Justin Hopkins, reported that the project has been assigned to the district’s five-year capital plan.
That move makes the infrastructure work eligible for state reimbursement, Hopkins said.
Hopkins also said the previous 2019 five-year plan had a higher annual allocation than was spent, and that RIDE has left open the possibility of “unfunded reimbursement” from that plan that could be applied to the project.
“We want to make sure we are not jeopardizing any of our other valuable projects that we have coming at the expense of this type of reimbursement,” he said.
The subcommittee also voted to hire Downes Construction as the project manager to shepherd the project through the reimbursement process and act as “boots on the ground, to act in the town’s best interest,” he said.
Lastly, the subcommittee voted to move the work on Augeri Field forward, knowing that significant parts of the design, labor and material were readily available.
“Those advantages … outweighed any potential risk of moving it forward,” he said. “Provided the fiscal portion of this works out, it’s a project that’s in hand and ready to go. There are not many risks associated with it.”
Proceeding with renovating Augeri Field this year would cost $1.4 million, and school officials say that work can be paid for as conditions stand now.
The town and the School Committee have each allocated $500,000 from their respective coffers toward field work. The town also has $20,000 remaining in its engineering budget.
FieldTurf, the contractor consulting with the town, has said $250,000 of work can be deferred until the following year.
That leaves $139,750, according to Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau.
With infrastructure work on Augeri pegged at $850,000, the town could see at least 35%, or about $300,000, returned to it by the state, according to school officials.
“If the $850,000 is reimbursable that brings in $300,000 and you’d have money to spare following that, and all of that doesn’t include fundraising at all,” Garceau said.
The estimate for completing the quad separately is about $1.2 million.
Though there’s no consensus yet, discussion in recent weeks has focused on using available funds, combined with reimbursement from the state and deferred payments to begin work on the Augeri Field portion of the work this year.
That would leave more time for fundraising to pay for similar artificial turf on the adjacent quad. Barring a windfall of donations or several very large gifts, that would start at the earliest in 2024.
School Committee Chairman Robert Cillino acknowledged that with $80,000 in hand and $228,000 in fundraising pledged so far, even if a total of $800,000 were raised by next year, “We’re still going to be short on the quad.”
Cillino warned that the committee would not be able to dip into its general fund if funding for the quad comes up short.
“We promised $500,000 to do both fields, the town promised $500,000 to the fields as well,” he said. “If we’re going to put the full $1 million into this field, then we’re going to get this field done, but I don’t see us getting the quad done.”
Garceau said there are no intentions to use any money from the fund balance on the work.
Cillino said key budget talks next week, including whether to add staff positions back to the spending plan, would be an opportune time to revisit the issue.
“We’ve got a week to try to work out some of these kinks, maybe feel more comfortable with it and not necessarily take (Augeri) off the table for this year,” he said. “We’ll see if people can feel better about it and move forward with it.”
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