Alba: Commit to Smithfield school facility improvements

Alba: Commit to Smithfield school facility improvements

SMITHFIELD – Town Council President Suzy Alba this week proposed that an additional $200,000 be added to the 2021-2022 budget to help create a Smithfield School District capital fund and pay for safety improvements at the Whipple Field softball facility.

Alba made her motion during Tuesday night’s budget workshop of the Town Council and Budget and Financial Review Board.

No motions or decisions were made during the meeting, though Alba’s proposed change received support from the Town Council, School Committee, Supt. Judy Paolucci, and members of the public.

Alba will need to propose the changes during a 6 p.m. meeting on June 15 via Zoom. Residents can join at www.gotomeet.me/RandyRossi/smithfield-town-council, or by phone at 877-568-4106 using access code 342-930-965.

After speaking with the girls’ softball team, Alba proposed putting $75,000 toward the Parks and Recreation Department for safety improvements at the Whipple Field softball field. Improvements include safety netting and possibly a new field configuration, according to Parks and Recreation Director Robert Caine.

Of the remaining $200,000, Alba proposed putting $125,000 aside as an initial investment in a school district capital reserve fund, created to pay for smaller school capital improvement projects.

The budget increase would raise the residential tax rate from $17.09 per $1,000 assessed value to $17.16 per $1,000 of value. For an average taxpayer, the bill will increase an additional $22.12 annually, said Town Manager Randy Rossi.

School Committee member Richard Iannitelli explained the funding for the capital reserve fund as coming from different sources. He said the School Department will also add to the fund from its annual fund balance, as well as contributing to it from Rhode Island housing reimbursements from money spent on Rhode Island Department of Education-approved capital projects.

“The basis is town money going in,” Iannitelli said.

The proposed additional funding comes after the Budget and Financial Review Board recommended a budget excluding capital improvement funding for the district, as reported by The Valley Breeze & Observer last week.

The Smithfield School Department originally requested $241,000 for capital improvements to pay for auditorium renovations, including lighting and sound equipment. In Town Manager Randy Rossi’s proposed budget, $120,500 was proposed to cover the renovations. Neither made the final draft proposed by the BFRB. Citing the $1.7 million in federal stimulus funds coming to the district, BFRB members said they felt the School Department had funds for capital improvements.

Paolucci said last week that the federal government has not made it clear how those funds can be spent, but she expects to use it to extend the life of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems at the middle school and high school. Paolucci said an original estimate to repair and replace the systems was $7 million.

Paolucci said there is a long and growing list of capital improvement projects at the schools, and the goal is to keep up with those ballooning needs.

“At $1.7 million, we’re going to keep that HVAC going,” she said.

BFRB member Kenneth Sousa expressed concerns that $125,000 from the town, with limited housing reimbursements and district funding, would not pay for the list of things needed at the schools, and the town would still need to borrow big money for projects. Sousa said he supports putting money in the reserve fund.

Paolucci said the fund will never be enough money to pay for all needs, but it is a good starting point.

“We’re never going to have enough money to have cash for every capital need we have,” she said.

BFRB Chairwoman Kate Zimmerman said she hopes that the soon-to-be-formed Capital Committee, made to act as an advisory committee for the Town Council regarding the town’s capital program and to prioritize capital projects, will help shed light on ways to spend funds.