No. Smithfield Council may look to voters for more bond money

No. Smithfield Council may look to voters for more bond money

Task Force: $12 million was never enough

NORTH SMITHFIELD – Members of the Municipal Building Review Task Force say that the $12 million bond approved by voters in 2014 was not an adequate amount to fund the real needs of the town. And under their recommendation, the Town Council has approved getting a space needs study for the town facilities portion of the project at a cost of $30,000 to $50,000, a report they say will show the “real” amount needed to move forward with any work.

“We very well might have to go back to the voters,” said Councilor Daniel Halloran at the board’s meeting Monday night, after hearing a report from Task Force Chairman Paul Vadenais. “We might have to go back and say ‘mistakes were made’.”

The task force was appointed to review the work of the Public Buildings Improvement Commission, and has reportedly spent the past several months looking contracts and interviewing individuals involved with the bond-funded project to date. The PBIC was working on a plan to spend $5.2 million on town facilities, approved by voters as part of a $12 million bond package in 2014. The money was slated to be used to improve the former Bushee School, where the police department would get an expanded “public safety complex,” and Kendall Dean, where town and school officials would be housed.

But an RFP for the project put out last fall came back with bids around $1 million over budget. PBIC members sought council approval to reduce the scope of work that would be achieved with the money last November, but the board instead voted to put the plan on hold, and a task force was appointed to look at their work.

And on Monday, Vadenais delivered the results of that review, saying that the budget was never adequate, and the project was doomed to fail.

“The biggest obstacle that was ignored from the beginning was the fact that there was never enough funds to complete the project properly,” said Vadenais. The chairman also delivered a list of problems with how the project was handled, stating that space needs were never evaluated, and a project manager was hired too late in the process. Vadenais said that the architect, Studio Meja, may not have been “best suited for this type of work,” and that the board should have utilized bond anticipation notes rather than drawing down money that the town would immediately need to start paying back.

Vadenais said the town has already spent $419,000 of the $5.2 million. And North Smithfield has started paying back that money despite the fact that construction has yet to begin, with $118,000 paid in interest and $695,000 in principal spent to date.

“Other than a set of blueprints, do we have anything to show for that money?” Town Council President John Beauregard asked Vadenais.

“We have an abatement report from Kendall Dean and Bushee School and we have a set of plans that aren’t affordable right now,” he answered.

Vadenais noted that if the town halted plans to improve facilities now, they would have spent $1.8 million with nothing to show for it.

While the task force has focused on town buildings, Vadenais noted that he believes all three portions of the $12 million bond were underfunded. Councilors in charge at the time the bond plan was laid out also allocated $2.2 million to roadways and $4.3 million for improvements to school facilities, numbers based, at least in part, on advice from a financial advisor who told them the town should not borrow more than $12 million.

“They cut it down to fit a number,” Vadenais said. “They were settling for something. In two or three years you would have been looking to make more repairs on a building you just updated and upgraded.”

The road project, he said, had been handled and completed successfully due to the experience of the individuals involved. School officials, meanwhile, have discussed needing more than their allotted $4.3 million to successfully decommission Halliwell.

Vadenais recommended the council put out an RFP for the space needs study. “This step would provide a confident approach on how best to proceed. It does not appear that room for growth or additional staff was factored into the planning process.”

Of going back to voters for additional funding, Councilor Claire O’Hara said, “I think there’s a possibility that people will go with it. I think it’s logical and in the long run it will save this town money.”

Councilor Thomas McGee, who was on the board when the original bond plan was worked out, said he finds the issue embarrassing. “We can’t have another failure,” McGee said. “I didn’t believe we had enough money last time, but I was buffaloed into it. We’ve got to get this right.”

The council unanimously approved an RFP for a space needs study, a report Vadenais said will cost between $30,000 and $50,000.

Town Administrator Gary Ezovski said he agrees with going back to the planning process and that in 2014, voters didn’t know what they were getting. “We didn’t say specifically what we were going to do,” Ezovski said of the bond money. “We forced something to happen.”

“We’ve got to do these things right,” he added. “Sensible planning is the way to go.”