Smithfield, RI Weather
By Ron Scopelliti
This November, in addition to the usual spate of candidates in the mid-term election, Smithfield voters will be asked on separate ballot questions whether to authorize two bond issues totaling $49.5 million.
The Fire Department is seeking a bond issue not to exceed $4.5 million to build a new station in the area of Route 7 and Route 116. The projected year of issuance is 2019.
In a separate item, the School Department is requesting a maximum of $45 million for major elementary school renovations, projected to be issued in three phases from 2020 to 2022.
While the heads of each department look hopefully towards passage of their referendum questions, former Town Council Vice President Paul Aiello has been a vehement and vocal critic of approving so much borrowing at one time.
The Fire Department Bond
The $4.5 million bond requested by the Fire Department would fund their long-stated goal of building a fourth fire station in the northern part of town. The main motivation, Fire Chief Robert Seltzer says, is to decrease response times to the area.
“We have some areas there that it takes us 12 to 14 minutes to get to. On the average we’re closer to 8 to 10 minutes,” says Chief Seltzer.
He says that response times in the rest of the town are four to six minutes, and that these times are critical in emergency medical situations, particularly if a person stops breathing or is in cardiac arrest. He notes that a variety of advanced equipment added to the department over the years has helped the department achieve a good record of resuscitating people, but that long response times decrease the chances of a successful resuscitation.
“The response time is critical in making a difference,” he says.
“We have the tools to make a difference. “We need to get them to your front door.”
He adds that the response time is increasingly important when fighting fires as well: “Fire spread has gone down to three to four minutes of significant fire spread, compared to back in the sixties and seventies, when you had almost 17 minutes because of the materials being used in construction and furniture.
“If we’re going to make it safer for people, whether it’s a medical situation or your house is on fire – if we’re going to save property, we’ve got to get there in a reasonable amount of time, and if we’re going to save lives, we’ve got to get there in a reasonable amount of time.”
The bond will only be used to pay for the construction of the station, which will be equipped with apparatus that is already in inventory.
Once it’s built, the department plans to gradually add staff over a three-to-four year period, eventually totaling five.
“With what I have for staff now, if I hire five people, there’ll be someone rolling out of that new station 24/7.”
“It’s not our intent to say, ‘you’ve got to go hire five people next budget,’” Seltzer says. “We’re trying to plan this out so it eases the tax burden.”
Seltzer says that adding the new station would also increase the town’s standing with the Insurance Services Office (ISO), which has an impact on insurance rates throughout town.
The town is currently rated as ISO 4, and the best rating is ISO 1. Seltzer says the new station will definitely get the town to ISO 3. Further administrative changes, he believes, make it likely that the town will reach ISO 2.
“So not only are we improving our services,” he says, “at least there’s a little financial savings on your insurance. Hopefully it will offset an increase in taxes.”
“The other plus to this is the income from responding to EMS calls,” Seltzer says, noting that one of the trucks at the new station will be outfitted as a technical rescue vehicle, and respond to auto accidents, extrications, and the like.
“We bill for automobile accidents. We’re in the process of generating about $80,000 a year on automobile accidents. And that vehicle is going to be a key component of that, because it’s a billable resource for some of the calls it goes on.”
Seltzer says the department has worked with the town’s Financial Review Commission to minimize the financial impact on taxpayers, and that the $4.5 million is a “worst case scenario.”
While they have right of first refusal on a state-owned property at the corner of Rtes. 7 and 116, Seltzer says that they will reach out to other property owners before they make the final decision to see if there’s something else available. An ideal situation, he says, would be a site with an existing building that could be converted into a fire station, saving money on construction and site preparation.
In the next few weeks, he notes, he will doing a bit of a “road show,” holding public forums where people will have the chance to get further information and ask questions.
“That’s our plan for September and October, leading up to the ballot,” Seltzer says.”
The School Department Bond
The School Department’s $45 million bond issue would fund a multi-phase refurbishment and reconfiguration of the town’s elementary schools.
“The average age of our facilities is 59,” School Superintendent Judy Paolucci says of the town’s school buildings.
“They’re not in the shape they should be,” she says. “There’s a lot of deferred maintenance. And this happens in a lot of towns.”
“Certainly in this town, the schools are a big asset. Not only the facilities, but the whole school department is an asset to the town, so we’ve got to think about how to take care of it.”
The first phase in the plan is to relocate students from William Winsor School, built in 1933, expanding the nearby Anna McCabe School to accommodate them.
“I know for some people it’s a sad thing for Winsor to close,” says Paolucci, “but we do want the best for our students, and we want our students to be in a safer environment.”
She cites concerns about fire safety, traffic safety, security, and evacuation at the Putnam Pike building. One of the major issues is the lack of a sprinkler system in the library, which required the School Department to re-apply for a fire code variance this summer. Paolucci says the original variance was provided because the building was supposed to close in five years.
“That was eleven years ago,” she says.
To make room for the students from William Winsor School, which has a current enrollment of 261, McCabe School will be expanded backwards, towards the High School. In the process, a gym will be added, so that the cafeteria will no longer do triple duty as a gymnasium and auditorium. The entrance to the building will also be relocated.
Paolucci says the gym will be located so that it can be used as a town resource on weekends, with the rest of the building closed off. The design of the addition will also offer options on how the grade levels are divided.
“You can organize it almost like two schools,” she says.
The principal amount for this portion of the project would be $22,314,420 with a projected issuance year of 2020.
The second phase of the program is to renovate and expand Raymond C. LaPerche School to accommodate the town’s preschool program, currently located at McCabe School. LaPerche will also get a gymnasium, and refurbished classrooms.
The principal amount for this phase of the project is 14,508,638, with a projected issuance date of 2021.
The third phase will involve renovations to Old County Road School.
“The main thing about Old County is it doesn’t have an elevator,” Paolucci says. In addition to the challenge it poses for students with physical disabilities, it also poses a challenge for responders dealing with medical emergencies.
In addition to the elevator, the school will get a “sally port” entrance, relocated to provide more security. All the elementary schools will get similar entrances during their phases of the project, as well as infrastructure and safety upgrades.
Principal for this final phase of the elementary school project is 8,176,942, projected to be issued in 2022.
Paolucci notes that she is looking at ways both to mitigate the cost of the bonds being requested, and to reduce future reliance on bond issues through a number of methods.
“When William Winsor School is closed, she says, “The town can either repurpose the building or market it out.
“The amount indicated in the bond assumes a worst case scenario where the town gets no financial gain from the property.”
She also says that the breakdown of costs sent out with the town’s latest tax bills assumes 40 percent state reimbursement on the project, but that the reimbursement could increase to 55 percent if a statewide $250 million school infrastructure bond is approved in the November election.
“At the same time I’m working on a plan that I’d like to have approved by the School Committee and the Town Council for a capital reserve fund,” Paolucci says.
The fund will be built up from three sources: the annual allocation from the town for capital projects; state reimbursement for capital expenditures; and part of the school department’s annual fund balance.
Once this fund is established, she says, “If we only spend out of this fund a maximum of between 65 and 75 percent of what we bring in the following year, then we start building it up.”
She and other department members are also pursuing grants to fund future capital improvements.
“I’m a taxpayer too,” Paolucci says. “I don’t want to have bond after bond.”
An Opposing Voice
Former Town Council Vice President Paul Aiello has been a vocal critic of the two bond issues, noting the cumulative property tax effect that the increase in debt will have. He’s so strongly opposed, that, as The Smithfield Times went to press, he was planning to mail out fliers at his own expense, presenting his case against the bonds.
Aiello, who has spoken out on the subject at numerous meetings, feels that authorizing so much debt all at once will lead to exorbitant tax increases for many years to come.
“I’ve been bringing this issue up at Council meetings for three or four months now, as have other taxpayers in the area,” he says. “I’ve been dead against it from the start.”
Approving both bond issues would raise the town’s bond debt from its current $21,225,000 to $70,725,000. The town’s bond capacity is $82,625,135.
“They’re two separate bond issues,” he says. “But this is so staggering, I think it’s best right now to vote them both down, and start all over. I really do.”
According to a document included in the town’s tax bills, if both bonds are passed, the owner of an average single-family home would see a tax increase of $14 in 2020, $117.60 in 2021, and $249 in 2022.
Aiello says, however, that the information that was sent doesn’t reflect the true ramifications of the bond issues, because it accounts for the tax increases due to the bonds, but not for other increases.
“When you look at history, you’re looking at least two percent increases in the budget,” Aiello says. “So you add that to the bond issue and you’re looking at close to four percent, or more.” The state requires a four percent cap on tax increases, but there is a mechanism for over-riding the cap for a bond issue.
He is particularly concerned with the “multiplier effect” that the increase in the town’s debt service payments will have on taxes.
“The higher your property bill is,” he explains, “the faster it climbs.”
“Each year you start out with a new, higher base value,” Aiello says, so the percentages compound over time.
According to his calculations, he says: “In just four years, a taxpayer’s cumulative property tax will be increased by over 20 percent.”
“It’s not sustainable. It’ll harm the taxpayers in Smithfield; there’s no doubt about it,” he says. “You’re going to need a Barrington income to live in Smithfield.”
“I’m not against school improvements,” Aiello notes, suggesting that they be taken on in a more incremental way. “Do a small bond issue – under 10 [million]. Focus on priority improvements. Do one school at a time. Then as our debt service is being paid down, take a look at another project.”
He says his concern over property taxes is longstanding.
“It’s not something that just came to me,” he says. “For 30 years this has been a major concern of mine. Someday I’m going to be on the tax freeze. What’s my tax going to be frozen at? Six, seven, eight thousand dollars, if they still have [the senior tax freeze]?”
“This is a major issue in town,” Aiello says. “It will affect this town for the next 20 years.”