SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The fallout from COVID-19 continues to dominate decision making in South Kingstown, where officials rejected requests for state legislation that would have allowed the town to have a November ballot question asking for up to $91.5 million in schools and municipal capital spending.
The move would have asked state legislators to introduce enabling legislation at the General Assembly to place two items on the ballot. The move is required by law and is usually a routine one for communities that want to bond large spending items.
The first would have paved the way for up to $6.5 million in borrowing for town capital improvements, minus schools issues.
A second, larger item authorizing up to $85 million for school infrastructure improvements and renovations has been hotly debated during the past year.
Town Manager Rob Zarnetske recommended that the Town Council not move forward with the requests at this time. The council unanimously voted Monday to reject the requests.
“I do support not going forward with this, but it is painful for me to say that,” Councilwoman Deborah Kelso said, referring to the school bond item.
Zarnetske said that while some communities are forging ahead with large capital projects, taking advantage of cheap money and empty schools to get the work done, “the balance here is not quite right yet.”
“I don’t think we’re in a place where we know for sure that we can take on $92 million if you take the total together in this environment,” he said, but noted the town has good credit and reserves, along with among the highest bond ratings in the state. He made the recommendation after speaking with the town’s finance director.
He noted that the high school project “is not well defined yet. We don’t know what the bottom line is on that project yet,” and the town is waiting on drawings from the architect, RGB.
The town’s bond counsel advised Zarnetske that South Kingstown’s bond rating could take a hit from “more uncertainty from COVID and more debt.”
“That makes me nervous,” Zarnetske said. “The fact that the project is not shovel-ready makes me nervous.”
On the municipal spending side, “We’ve heard a lot form taxpayers out there that are hurting,” Zarnetske said. “We heard this during the budget debate.”
The municipal expenditures that the town would borrow are for future needs. Among them are the completion of the Matunuck Beach seawall, which the town has sought funding for for a long time.
“It’s probably not going to kill us to do it another year,” Zarnetske said.
Council members agreed with Zarnetske that now is not the time to ask taxpayers to spend almost $100 million.
“I wish we could turn back the clock to ‘circa’ February, which seems like ages ago, when South Kingstown’s unemployment was 3.6 (percent) and the state’s was 4.6,” Kelso said. “I was a huge proponent of putting this on the November ballot for voters to weigh in on the issue. Well, that’s changed. I can no longer be such an advocate for November.”
Kelso noted that the school bond contains items that must be addressed.
“It isn’t all wants. It’s a lot of needs, and this town has put off those needs for a long time,” she said.
Councilman Rory McEntee noted that the state’s finances are in “shambles” and that state reimbursements the towns had counted on for the large school construction projects might not be there.
Council President Abel Collins noted that if conditions improve rapidly with regard to the economy, “there’s an opportunity to take this up at a later date.”