On May 6, I attended the Charlestown public hearing on the proposed 2019-20 town budget. This budget contains a surplus of more than $3 million due to a reduction of 61 Charlestown students in the Chariho School System, an overestimate of the costs to refurbish Burdickville Road, and an excess in the town’s reserve fund. There were two suggested uses for these funds brought up at the April Town Council meeting: a motion by Ms. Carney for a festival event center (band shell), and an amended motion by Ms. Van Slyke for a community center. Both venues were proposed for Ninigret Park on the 55 acres that the town owns outright. The Town Council accepted the amended motion.
At the budget hearing, most of the discussion was about the advisability of siting a community center in the park or to have the center at all. People spoke in favor of the budget or against the budget but euphemistically for or against the community center. The community center is a line item in this budget proposal, and in April the town’s legal counsel advised the participants that the funds do not have to be spent during the coming fiscal year, and if so desired, can be moved into another line item at the discretion of the town council at some future time.
Evidently, this advice was not carried forth, because a few attendees thought that if they did not want a community center, they had to vote against the budget on June 3. This would be like not purchasing a beautiful house because you don’t like the color of the curtains.
Some of the comments had to do with the fact that there are not business plan, building design, or maintenance costs in the proposal. An Ad Hoc Committee on a community center is being formed to investigate the wants and needs of the electorate, look into building design, prepare cost estimates for the project and other planning aspects and then present the findings to the Town Council and the taxpayers. Some people tried to compare the probable costs with the costs of South Kingstown’s center. This is apples and oranges because South Kingstown has a population of about 30,000 and Charlestown under 8,000. This I consider a spurious argument. Costs can be used as a bogeyman; so can possible flooding of the site. Initially offered by Ms. Carney in April as a reason against the Ninigret site, the potential site is not in a flood zone per FEMA’s Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) (rev.
2013) and has not flooded after several major storms hit this area. Also, water availability and sewage disposal are two items the Ad Hoc Committee will address. More than 200 signatures were delivered to the town clerk supporting a community center. Another person said she polled her neighbors, who were against the center but had no signatures to show.
There were some valid concerns voiced by the attendees. An underfunded police pension fund was raised, as well as the need to provide additional funds for the town employees’ benefits program.
These are concerns that bother some taxpayers but were not addressed by the town moderator or the Budget Commission members at that time. Essentially the meeting brought out concerns about using the budget surplus.
As in many differences opined here in Charlestown, the issue has become a political football. Mr. Stephen Stolle spoke eloquently about the need to come together for the benefit of the community as a whole and work out a process in which we all can take pride.
The pieces are there for the amicable resolution to a project that has become politically charged. Just to put a fine point on the political tug of war, just look at the list of people pro and con on the issue; the lines are predictable.