You can do anything you want if you have enough time and money, but ... that’s not reality. When it comes to spending taxpayers’ money, common sense must come into play. It’s not a feel-good or emotional decision. It needs to be based on reality, needs, and funds available. There is no free lunch.
With that in mind, I’m in complete agreement with Town Councilor William Aiello, who called the Westerly School project “… too much money for something we don’t need.” Aiello also noted that “student enrollment has dropped since 2003 and is projected to decrease more through 2028. He acknowledged a need to improve the town’s elementary schools, but said a solution can be found without constructing a new building” (“Voters to decide fate of Westerly school project” by Dale Faulkner in the Sept. 8 issue of The Sun). This kind of spending is nothing more than “Chasing the Shiny Object Syndrome.”
Think about this for a minute. Proponents of this project are asking the voters to approve spending that will cost $118 million (or $77 million to the taxpayers after aid/credits), assuming it comes in on time and on budget. That’s over $77 million for a town with a population of only 22,626, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, of which a growing percentage, currently 21% (4,744), are over 65 years old, and a declining school enrollment, with only 2,656 students as of January, projected to decline further. Even with a 35% state reimbursement, that’s $77 million and 25 years of debt! While “Members of the [Elementary] School Building Subcommittee and representatives of RGB Architects of Providence, which designed the project, say they are confident that the project will receive 50% reimbursement once the state determines that all of its threshold incentives for the higher rate have been met” (“Westerly looking at higher tax levy but lower rate for 2019-20” by Dale Faulkner in the April 12 issue of The Sun), that’s hope and prayers, not a guarantee. It’s the kind of throwaway line people use when they want to get you to do something, but can’t commit to actuals. But even at that, it’s still $22 million above the combined 2019 town/school budget of $96.26 million. I ask you to really look at the numbers, because those who are for the spending plan are using “Pencil Magic.” The amount is far too expensive, putting this kind of burden on taxpayers and future generations, especially when there is a better way than throwing money at the “Shiny Object.”
Ask yourself, does Westerly, with a declining school population of 2,656 pupils, really need to spend $77 million ($118 million total project cost) to both improve school buildings and to construct a new building that itself accounts for half the total cost? Is that the best use of our money? Emotionally, some might say, “Yes,” but common sense and fiscal responsibility say, “No.”