WESTERLY — The ballot for a May 4 referendum will ask voters to approve borrowing up to $11 million for roads, sidewalks, and water system repairs in addition to a question seeking permission to borrow $2 million for school renovation work.
The Town Council voted 5-1 during a special meeting Tuesday to move the $11 million project along for consideration on May 4. The council had previously voted to put the school project on the ballot.
Councilors Karen Cioffi, Caswell Cooke Jr., Christopher Duhamel, Suzanne Giorno, and Philip Overton voted in favor of putting the proposed roads project on the ballot. Council President Sharon Ahern voted against the measure saying that while she believed the road project was a good idea she preferred to have voters consider the borrowing initiative in the fall when another referendum asking voters to approve an estimated $15 million for sewer system repairs and a potential large-scale school building project is expected to occur. Councilor Brian McCuin did not attend the meeting.
A presentation on the town's debt capacity from Steve Maceroni, the town's financial advisor, convinced Duhamel that the road project could go forward and still allow for the sewer project and the school project. Maceroni said all three projects could be taken on without adversely affecting the town's bond rating as long as the town is not required to start paying the proposed school bond until 2026 when about $2.22 million in current debt is scheduled to be paid off.
"I wanted the school project first and the sewer project second and then the roads, but because only the roads are ready now, that's what we should do. The reason is because interest rates are incredibly low and costs are incredibly low for asphalt," Duhamel said.
Cioffi said she would have preferred to conduct one referendum on all of the proposed projects but voted to put the roads on the May ballot to give the town a chance to take advantage of low asphalt costs.
Giorno pushed for putting the roads project on the May referendum, saying she was uncertain it would be approved in the fall.
Town Manager J. Mark Rooney said the road project would break down as follows: about $9 million for roads, about $2 million for sidewalks and about $2 million for water system repairs to be performed in conjunction with some of the road work. The $11 million project would require a 3-cent tax rate increase 2021-22, a 7-cent tax-rate increase in 2022-23 and a 10-cent increase by the time it would be paid off in 2042, according to a financial impact analysis developed by Finance Director Dyann Baker.
The cost of the $2 million school project, which will entail replacing the roof at Dunn's Corners School and other work, is expected to be offset by savings realized from refinancing debt from an earlier school construction project.
An upgrade of the Margin Street sewer plant is estimated to cost $12 to $15 million and will be required as a condition for issuance of a new wastewater treatment permit to the town by the state Department of Environmental Management.
The School Committee's Building Subcommittee has been working on developing or recommending a school project for more than a year since voters rejected a $71.4 million school building project in November 2019. Members of the subcommittee and the School Committee have also discussed asking the Town Council to set a maximum spending amount and developing a project that fits the proposed expenditure. Maceroni used $50 million when he performed his debt-capacity analysis.