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Move to put $2.25M infrastructure bond on Portsmouth ballot fails

Funds would have been used for senior center sprinklers and many other needed improvements

By Jim McGaw
Posted 7/28/20

PORTSMOUTH — A Town Council member’s proposal to ask voters in November to approve a $2.249 million bond for needed improvements to the town’s infrastructure went by the …

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Move to put $2.25M infrastructure bond on Portsmouth ballot fails

Funds would have been used for senior center sprinklers and many other needed improvements

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — A Town Council member’s proposal to ask voters in November to approve a $2.249 million bond for needed improvements to the town’s infrastructure went by the wayside when it failed to get a second Monday night.

Andrew Kelly was seeking support for a “Capital Improvement, Preservation, Recreation, and Quality of Life Bond” he said would pay for the installations of sprinklers and an elevator at the senior center (thereby keeping the building open), improvements to beach facilities and local playgrounds, the preservation of a sheep shed and ice house at the Glen, and more.

“Obviously we have to have a discussion on what we’re going to do post-COVID, in poor economic times, when our citizens are outside using our recreational facilities,” Mr. Kelly said, referring to the list of recreational improvements on his list. They include $245,216 for improvements to Sandy Point Beach facilities as well as more than $800,000 for equipment and improvements to playgrounds in Island Park, Redwood Farms, Turnpike Avenue, and at the former Coggeshall School.

Many of the cost estimates included on Mr. Kelly’s list came from a previous Facility Condition Assessment that was prepared by Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc.

In his backup material for the request, Mr. Kelly said although the current administration has done a good job "including needed capital improvements in the operational budget, it needs a large infusion of dollars to make even the smallest dent."

He added, "I am aware we will need to include interest and seek information from our bond counsel. I am also painfully aware of the time sensitive nature of putting something on the November ballot, but these are important projects for the citizens and they should have the final say."

One of the town’s top priorities, he said, was the myriad of issues at the Portsmouth Multi-Purpose Senior Center, formerly used as the Anne Hutchinson School. If those issues aren’t addressed, he said, the building will need to be shut down.

The senior center was cited for 35 fire code violations in the fall of 2019 and given 30 days to remove everything from the second floor — which had been used just for storage — and to address other issues within that timeframe.

The town corrected all violations except for three — building sprinklers, headroom clearance at the front door, and kitchen plenum and duct system work — and given variances to address those issues by June 30, 2021.

Mr. Kelly noted the town has “zero dollars” budgeted for those improvements. 

While council member Len Katzman did not support the motion for a bond referendum, he agreed the town needed to make a decision soon about the senior center.

“To choose to do nothing for some of these things is still a choice. To choose to not spend $400,000 to put sprinklers inside the senior center means that facility will close,” said Mr. Katzman, adding the town could at some point hold a special referendum to ask residents to vote on the upgrades.

‘Not financially feasible’

Council member Keith Hamilton said the senior center sprinklers were the “most pressing” item on Mr. Kelly’s list, “but at some point we have to decide whether we’re going to keep that building or not.”

He wanted to look at the list “more in conjunction with the overall capital improvement plan,” Mr. Hamilton said. “It’s not financially feasible at this point.”

Council member Daniel Abbott said while she agreed in concept with Mr. Kelly’s proposal, the council needs more time to carry out a “robust prioritization process … All these projects have been identified, (but) they’re not all at the same level of priority.”

Council member J. Mark Ryan agreed, saying the town isn’t close to deciding which of the many items it can afford. The council needs to prioritize the list and come up with a systematic plan, Dr. Ryan said. “This is a discussion that has to be had,” he said.

In any event, the council would be up against a tight deadline to get the bond on the ballot, said Council President Kevin Aguiar, noting its language would need to be submitted to the R.I. Secretary of State’s Office by Aug. 6. “This really doesn’t give us much time to finalize ... these dollar amounts,” Mr. Aguiar said.

Local resident Larry Fitzmorris, of the taxpayer group Portsmouth Concerned Citizens, urged the council not to put the bond on the ballot, saying taxpayers are already hurting by the recent municipal budget increase, COVID and the recession.

“I agree that this is not the time to pour more debt on. I don’t know what anyone knows what the budget is going to look like coming out of the state assembly, but it’s not going to be kind to us,” he said.

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