2018-04-05 / Front Page

$9.8M question will appear on ballot this fall

Council decides to merge library, clubhouse and schools into single vote
BY TIM RIEL

A single vote by taxpayers in November will determine the futures of four publicly owned facilities, the town councilors decided Monday night.

“The library is a wonderful institution that needs updates,” Councilman Gene Mihaly said. “The schools speak for themselves. And the golf course building has been in shambles for so long. I’m looking forward to approval and construction of all these projects.”

In front of a just a handful of spectators, the council voted 4-1 along party lines to introduce a $9.8 million bond referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The council’s vice president, Democrat Mike White, endorsed the timeline because voter turnout for all-day gubernatorial elections dwarfs the attendance at financial town meetings. When Rhode Islanders voted for governor in 2014, there were 2,925 local voters who went to the polls; only 145 residents registered at the town meeting five months earlier.

“We want to reach a wider range of voters to make this decision,” White said.

This was the first time a single bond has been vetted in public. Previously, the council was considering three separate referendums: $5.9 million for repairs to the two schools, $2.9 to build a new clubhouse at the golf course and $1 million for library maintenance. Councilwoman Mary Meagher led the charge for the so-called Jamestown Infrastructure Bond.

“The bond includes both things we must do and things we should do,” she said. “The simple fact is that borrowing isn’t getting any cheaper. Interest rates are going up.”

Mihaly agreed with Meagher. While a resident of California, he said voters were given a “thick booklet” describing the numerous referendums for consideration. He said the single bond will be easier for taxpayers to understand.

“Three bonds would be very confusing,” he said. “Confusion is what I fled from. It’s not good for anybody.”

Lincoln Street resident Priscilla Foley Blackman, a staunch opponent to the clubhouse plan, took exception with Mihaly’s comment. She said the town is full of educated residents, and suggesting a simple option to spare them three decisions “does the voters of this town a great disservice.”

Councilman Blake Dickinson, the council’s lone Republican and the bond’s lone dissenter, shared Blackman’s sentiment. He called the measure “underhanded and sneaky” because voters who support crucial repairs at the schools and library cannot approve them unless they also endorse building a new clubhouse.

“I always support moving items to the voter, but I do not support aggregating them,” he said. “It puts them all at risk.”

According to a spreadsheet from Town Administrator Andy Nota, a $9.8 million bond paid for in 25 years at 4 percent interest will cost taxpayers about 29 cents on the tax rate. That would be a $143 annual increase for homeowners with half-million-dollar properties. The rate, however, is eight cents lower when the state’s 40 percent reimbursement is calculated, which Nota estimates will total $3.8 million for the schools and $590,000 for the library. Reimbursable educational money, however, could be decelerated if the $250 million statewide referendum isn’t passed in November.

Kristine Trocki, council president, defended the council’s decision to marry new construction with renovations and maintenance because all of them fall under the umbrella of infrastructure.

“We are the elected officials who have spent countless hours in meetings,” she said.

She also stood by the decision to put the referendum on the November ballot because the financial town meeting can “pit interest groups against interest groups.”

“As a community, we can afford it,” Trocki said. “I believe this is the perfect opportunity for Jamestown to come together.”

In the coming months, Trocki expects a “tremendous amount of time” will be spent educating voters on the referendum. On the other hand, Dickinson said he plans to ask voters to vote down the measure because it “doesn’t allow people to separate the issues.”

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