In less than two months, Westerly voters will be back at the polls voting on $13 million in local bond issues, with much larger bond proposals likely to follow, possibly as soon as the fall.
Like all Rhode Islanders, Westerly voters were asked last week to decide on $400 million in statewide bond issues, all approved with a slim voter turnout of just over 100,000 votes.
The Town Council has set a May 4 special election for votes on bond issues for school repairs and road projects, leaving much larger possible bonds for wide-ranging school and sewer projects.
After assurances from its financial advisor, the council approved an $11 million road bond and $2 million school bond for the May 4 ballot, putting off the sewer bond and awaiting a school building committee proposal for a much broader schools’ project.
If history says anything, it’s likely the May 4 bond will bring out a slim voter turnout. In the recent statewide referenda, slightly less than 12 percent of Westerly voters cast ballots, some 2,600 of nearly 22,000 registered voters.
A $71.4 million school bond in October 2019 failed by a vote of 2,180 to 1,716, three years after another school bond had failed.
What voters will be deciding on May 4 are school renovations seen as more a band aid to a much larger project. Among the projects is replacement of the roof at Dunn’s Corners Elementary School. The $2 million is being described as a “wash” with costs covered by refinancing existing school bond debt.
The $11 million road bond expands what had originally been proposed as a $9 million bond, and continues what has been ongoing bonds, funding to address local road projects. The additional $2 million was added to address sidewalk projects.
The town’s financial advisor, Steve Maceroni, director of PFM Financial Advisors, told the council last week that the town can afford the bond issues, without lowering the town’s bond rating, and that, he said, includes the sewer project, and anticipated school bond.
He said a combination of funds coming off debt service over the next few years, the net debt as a percentage of the general fund (8.4 percent), and careful planning would make the projects affordable.
The anticipated sewer bond, which some councilors have suggested could be put to voters as soon as the fall, is anticipated to be at least $12 to $15 million, and possibly more.
The school bond may be stickier. Two attempts have failed, the last more than $71 million. School officials have anticipated a much revised and less expensive proposal to address several issues that were identified a few years ago by the Rhode Island Department of Education Jacobs report. A figure that has been loosely suggested is perhaps $50 million.
Some 35 percent or more of the school bond, according to RIDE policies, would be covered by the state. Incentive payments could increase that to some 50 percent.