2018-03-22 / Front Page

Town OKs $8.8M for schools, clubhouse

Money for projects would need voter approval

Although voters ultimately will decide their fate, the town is supporting plans to borrow $8.8 million in the upcoming fiscal year to repair the schools and build a new clubhouse at the golf course.

Following an hour-long debate Monday night that featured some fireworks, the town councilors voted 3-1 to approve a $2.9 million design for a two-story clubhouse on Conanicus Avenue. The building would separate golf operations on one level from public space upstairs. Moments later, it took the council a mere minute to unanimously support $5.86 million for repairs to Melrose and Lawn schools.

The votes only approve the plans. The councilors decided to table any decision on whether those bond referendums will be put forth at the financial town meeting in June or during November’s general election. The council also could schedule a special ballot, similar to the process used for the Portuguese American Citizens Club proposal in April 2015.

The council decided to table these decisions because Councilman Gene Mihaly, Finance Director Tina Collins and the bond counsel were not in attendance at Monday’s meeting. Town Administrator

Andy Nota said he expects to have draft referendums for both projects at the April 2 meeting.

The lone dissenter on the clubhouse vote, which attracted most of the three dozen audience members, was Republican Councilman Blake Dickinson.

Along with the approved plan, the other option was a $2.1 million building. That proposal was a single floor with 1,000 square feet dedicated to public space. A contingent of golfers took one final shot at curbing the plan, but their attempt fell short. They have opposed any measure that would mix golfing with a “community center.”

“We do not believe it is practical, safe or reasonable,” said Derek Blackman, of Lincoln Street. “These two activities are quite different pastimes.”

Blackman and his group, including course operator Joe Mistowski, have pressed the councilors to invest in course maintenance, specifically the damaged greens, instead of a clubhouse.

Nota, however, said these two things are not mutually exclusive.

Councilman Mike White agreed. “Apples and oranges,” he said. “We’ll fix the course and we’ll build the building.”

Both Nota and Councilwoman Mary Meagher said they took exception to an editorial in The Jamestown Press last week that recommended the town study the feasibility of a second floor. The editorial referred to the unknown interest in private events, such as weddings and trade shows, which would be managed by the municipality.

“The editorial did us a little bit of a disservice,” Meagher said.

Nota said revenue from private functions would serve as an “ancillary benefit” for the second floor. Generating profit was not his goal.

“It has not been the town’s focus,” he said.

Ocean Avenue’s Linda Jamison, however, said she recalled a discussion during the March 5 meeting in which councilors and the administration discussed the possibility of renting the space as a wedding venue. During that session, a 30-minute conversation about renting the second floor surfaced following Maple Avenue resident Ray Iannetta’s suggestion to estimate possible revenue.

While Meagher said golfing and public space should be the top two priorities, she floated the idea of the second floor becoming a “wintertime Fort Getty pavilion.” She pointed to the park’s revenue increase from $8,000 in 2014 to $33,000 in 2018.

“If we can make $20,000 on the top floor, then that goes toward paying for it,” she said.

Andy Wade, director of the recreation department, also discussed the revenue potential for the top floor. He pointed to Kinney Bungalow in Narragansett and the Easton’s Beach Rotunda Ballroom in Newport as ventures that make thousands of dollars per event. He said the second floor is a “perfect layout” for small trade shows and conferences.

“To lose out on a potential gain for citizens right now, I have a hard time swallowing that,” he said.

At Monday’s meeting, the councilors and Nota emphasized their position that profit is not the driving factor for a second floor.

“I don’t see this as a moneymaking venture,” said Kristine Trocki, council president. “That doesn’t mean we can’t make money.”

With the three Democrats endorsing the two-story building, Dickinson reiterated his opinion that the town was deviating from its responsibility as a lessee. The site currently is rented for a $175,000 annual fee.

“We’ll be talking about this next year,” he said. “Let the voters decide. I think we’ll be disappointed.”

According to Nota, the conservative estimate would be $190,000 annually in interest on a $2.9 million bond for 25 years. That would be about 8 cents on the tax rate. However, $150,000 from the property lease has been transferred to the general fund since the bond was retired more than a decade ago. With the new bond, that money no longer would be available, representing a $240,000 estimated shortfall annually.

Following his down vote for the clubhouse, Dickinson made an instant motion to endorse the school committee’s recommendation. That, however, was done reluctantly because the committee did not follow through with a request he made.

During a joint workshop last Thursday between the two sides, Dickinson asked school officials to investigate an $18 million option to close the middle school and transfer those students to Melrose. That building, which was built in 1990, is 40 years newer. No further information was presented Monday.

“This interests me because it moves the school back into one facility and allows us to manage costs for one building,” Dickinson said.

A third option also was discussed during last Thursday’s joint workshop that would send sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders to either Narragansett or North Kingstown, similar to how the district manages high school students. That gained no traction.

The proposed bond for the schools stems from a statewide assessment released in November by Jacobs Engineering that estimated $16.3 million in improvements to get Melrose and Lawn schools into ideal shape. That figure, however, only included about $60,000 in critical repairs to keep the doors open with a “clean, dry and safe” environment. The assessors reported the buildings were in “overall very good condition.”

The total five-year capital expense is $6.71 million, which represents the $5.86 million bond and about $850,000 in capital expenditures through the school department. This measure has no bearing on the annual operating budget presented at the financial town meeting.

The lion’s share of that total ($3.3 million) would be earmarked for the roofs, which includes $900,000 in solar panels. According to Nota, the schools use a combined 400,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. The two arrays, however, would generate close to 500,000 kilowatts. The remaining energy would be added to the power grid. The town, which uses approximately 2 million megawatts annually for its public buildings, could then use that energy to subsidize other municipal buildings, he said.

Other major costs include replacing HVAC systems, boilers, fuel tanks and windows. The plan for Lawn also has $375,000 for asbestos abatement and $150,000 for a secured entryway into the gymnasium.

According to Nota, a portion of this bond would be reimbursable through the state if the Department of Education approves the projects. The minimum is 35 percent, he said, but that number could increase to 45 percent with certain incentives.

Because the plan addresses a few of these enticements, including renewable energy, remediation of toxic materials and the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act, Nota is confident the town will receive at least 39 percent reimbursement. There also is the opportunity to secure $160,000 in grants for the solar projects, he added.

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