Three bonds on the ballot, but Halliwell demolition still in question

Three bonds on the ballot, but Halliwell demolition still in question

Will fencing off the school lead to vandalism?

NORTH SMITHFIELD - Three ballot questions for bonds totaling $12 million have gained General Assembly approval, now shifting the fate of the town's roadways, schools and municipal buildings into the hands of voters this November.

Left unsettled, however, is what to do with an aging elementary school that's scheduled to be closed as part of the facilities plan. The Town Council is expected to take a final vote on Aug. 18.

The bonds would dedicate $5.2 million toward repairs at the Kendall Dean building, Memorial Town Hall and the Municipal Annex; $2.5 million for repair and rehabilitation of the town's road infrastructure; and $4.3 million for "the demolition or safeguarding, repair, rehabilitation and consolidation of school classroom and storage buildings, including Halliwell Memorial School, North Smithfield Elementary School, North Smithfield Middle School, North Smithfield High School, and the Andrews School," in three separate ballot questions, according to legislation passed in June.

Details of how the money would be spent were hashed out by an 18-member Public Facilities Task Force last year that included members from nearly every facet of town government, from the library board of trustees to the Police Department.

Initially, the bonds were expected to be presented as a single $12 million ballot question, but the Town Council voted to separate the issues after several residents expressed disapproval.

"Their comment was they're smart enough to understand splitting the bonds," said Town Council President John Flaherty, who led the task force. "I still to this day feel that it should have been one 'Invest in NS' package."

Town officials also revisited the task force's original work plan with an eye toward reducing spending after a financial adviser told the council the town should not exceed $12 million in new debt.

Closing Halliwell, where failing septic systems and other repair issues have led to excessive spending for maintenance over the past several years, has been a main goal of the bond plan since the start. If the school bond is approved, the facility will be decommissioned and its students sent to either NSES or the middle school.

Less clear, however, is what will become of the buildings and land. The task force's original plan saw all of the buildings razed with the exception of one, which would be used for school storage. But when Flaherty asked Supt. Stephen Lindberg to make reductions to the scope of the work scheduled to be completed with school bond money, the superintendent said that instead of demolition, a fence should be placed around all the buildings. Eliminating the cost of demolition and using fencing would save around $125,000.

It's an idea that has been a sticking point for Flaherty and others.

"I don't think the public is going to like the idea," said Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton. "I also think it's going to be a vandalism issue."

The task force reconvened to discuss the Halliwell question and other bond issues this week, and Flaherty suggested that instead of nixing demolition, school officials should reduce their request to spend $400,000 on air conditioning at the middle school.

"To me, it just doesn't sell," said Flaherty. "I want this to pass, and I don't think that in its present form it's going to pass."

Hamilton said she would prefer to see all of the Halliwell buildings razed.

"If you're going to knock it down, my thought is you knock (them all) down," she said.

The Town Council will take up the issue for a final time at its meeting Aug. 18 and will make some last amendments to the plan.

"My hope is to get a recommendation from the School Committee before then," Flaherty said.

Further complicating the issue, school officials have expressed some reluctance to support the bond, in part because of a council decision to delay submitting a reimbursement application to the Rhode Island Department of Education until after voters approve the bond spending. Building and repairs that address health and safety issues are considered reimbursable by the state education board.

The town did receive an initial OK from R.I.D.E., but a detailed "Stage 2" application must be submitted by engineers before the money is considered a sure thing, and will cost around $31,000.

"The reason that it is important is that's where the reimbursement comes in," said School Committee member William Connell, who attended the task force's Tuesday night meeting. "That's a big selling point on the school bond."

Of the $4.3 million in planned spending on school facilities, $1.7 million is believed to be eligible for R.I.D.E. reimbursement.

Flaherty is working to devise a plan to win support for all three bonds and requested help from the task force members.

Capt. Tim Lafferty of the North Smithfield Police Department suggested holding an "open house" at the station so residents can see why repairs and expansion are desperately needed. As part of the $5.2 in municipal bond spending, town offices would consolidate with the School Department offices at Kendall Dean, creating more space for police business at the Annex.

Lafferty said that right now, the department's records room and evidence room are completely full.

"It's a mess," Lafferty said. "Those rooms have to be doubled in size because our business has doubled. We're a much busier department now."

A request for volunteers to help build public support elicited an immediate response from Planning Board member Art Bassett, who is now running for the School Committee: "I'll be the first to volunteer under one caveat: Halliwell goes down."

Comments

Art, I'm right there with you! I'm second. Halliwell MUST go down, or I'm not voting to approve the school bond, which then basically kills the town bond. I would like to see all three bonds approved. Halliwell, if not used, must be demolished. Why can't the school dept sell the land (and buildings if possible) to get some $ to pay for other upgrades. I don't know how that all works, but could be worth looking into.