standing Westerly Town Hall

WESTERLY — It appears town voters will be asked to borrow $2 million for school capital projects in May, but whether the referendum will also include a proposed bond for road work is less clear.

The Town Council voted 6-0 on Monday to approve a resolution calling for a May 2 referendum on the schools project. Officials say a bond issuance for the work to replace the roof at Dunn's Corners School and work at other schools would have little to no effect on taxpayers after a previous bond was refinanced. The savings realized from the refinancing would effectively pay for the new $2 million bond, officials say.

The council had also been set to approve asking voters to consider a proposed $9 million road bond, but decided to table action until its Public Works Subcommittee meets. Council members also said they wanted a better understanding of other upcoming significant projects, such as work to upgrade the sewer plant, a potential school project with a primary focus on elementary schools, and a potential bond for recreation facilities.

The council also held off on giving Town Manager J. Mark Rooney direction on how to spend about $1.28 million in unallocated funds that remain from the $15 million road bond that voters approved in 2018.

Councilor Christopher Duhamel noted that a visual aid generated by the municipal Engineering Department depicts roads in greatest need of repair in red.

"I would put the sewer plant in red too," Duhamel said. Rooney agreed, saying he would use "flashing red" to depict the urgency of addressing the sewer plant.

"Just throwing this at this council without having a greater picture is a mistake," Duhamel said.

Council President Sharon Ahern responded, saying the council had previously discussed a new road bond in December and approved asking voters to consider it as an item on the statewide referendum scheduled for March 2, but later learned that the deadline for local ballot questions passed before the question could be added to the ballot.

"We do not have to move [the road bond] forward to the next meeting. We can workshop it again or defer it," Ahern said.

Rooney said he limited the project list for the proposed new road bond to $9 million intentionally.

"The reason I stopped at $9 million isn't because there are not other roads but because $12-$15 million is needed for the sewer plant and the school building project is still active," Rooney said.

A more concrete cost estimate for the sewer plant work is expected to come through in the summer, Rooney said.

Councilors also analyzed a project list proposed by town staff for how to use the $1.28 million remaining from the 2018 bond. The staff's list did not include work to address sidewalks on Church Street in Bradford. Councilor Suzanne Giorno said the Bradford work should be given high priority as a safety issue.

The Church Street project has bedeviled the council for years with some hesitant to pull the trigger on using town funds to repair a state road. Councilor Philip Overton said the town must either fix the sidewalks or take the state to court.

"I am of the mind that we are either going to have to do it ourselves or we should litigate it with the state," Overton said.

Town staff have said the Church Street project would have to be rebid. Rooney said a previous round of bids from about one year ago came in at $650,000 to $800,000. Work to improve Atlantic Avenue for about $450,000 was included as a proposal for the remaining 2018 bond funds. Rooney said the Atlantic Avenue project could be completed by the end of May.

"If you prioritize Church Street first you are going to do a set of sidewalks that is on a state road that doesn't have in a decade the volume of pedestrian traffic that Atlantic Avenue has in a weekend," Rooney said.

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