First forum on upcoming bond vote in N.S. brings out questions

Resident Mike Rapko asks questions.

NORTH SMITHFIELD – The first in a series of informational forums on the project to construct a new headquarters for the North Smithfield Police Department was held on Wednesday, Sept. 20, with residents in attendance asking questions and clarifying details on the $18 million bond-financed effort set to go before voters this November.

Representatives from Tecton Architects began with a presentation of a single-story 13,000-square-foot plan for the building, along with the history of how the town arrived at the current design.

Project Manager Rebecca Hopkins noted that the first step was to evaluate the current structure at 575 Smithfield Road and look at elements not in alignment with current standards, from ramps that are not ADA compliant, to issues with the potential to affect the health and safety of officers, prisoners and the visiting public.

“The building had many deficiencies,” said Hopkins.

In the roughly hour-long presentation, Hopkins noted that if the bond is approved, construction of a new building at the same location would began in fall of next year. The addition of a garage/outbuilding, she noted, allowed architects to reduce the size of the proposed structure significantly from an original proposal of more than 20,000-square-feet.

For taxpayers, she said, the $18 million bond would equate to a tax increase of $236 annually on a $350,000 home, and for a home valued at $550,000, the burden would be $372 a year.

An opportunity for residents to ask questions followed.

“I was a little concerned about the cost per square foot because it seems kind of high compared to some of the other towns that have been building right now,” said resident Mali Jones.

Tecton Principal Jeff McElravy noted many factors – including contingency funds built in to the proposed – can affect cost.

“I don’t ever want to ask for more money,” McElravy said. “Am I protecting you and me by putting a little extra in that estimate? You betcha.”

Resident Mike Rapko asked why the firm didn’t start with the 13,000-square-foot proposal instead of designing something the town couldn’t afford.

“We wasted two years with the cost of doing business, the cost of inflation,” Rapko said. “We wasted a lot of time and a lot of money.”

McElravey said that every police station he’s worked on over the past 37 years has followed the same process, which involves starting with a project that reflects department needs.

“The community said, ‘this is beyond what’s affordable,’ so compromises were made,” he said. “Unfortunately, this happened during a very escalatory market.”

Richard Grubb asked what would happen to leftover funding if the firm finds savings once the project is underway.

“We have had many projects where the town didn’t have to borrow all of the money, or monies were returned,” McElravey said. “I’m not interested in spending your money. I’m interested in building your building.”

The informational forum followed a meeting where an attempt to remove the question from the November ballot died in a tie vote, with Council President Kimberly Alves and Councilor Paulette Hamilton voting to halt the initiative. Councilors John Beauregard and Claire O’Hara cast votes to move forward, and Councilor Douglas Osier was unavailable for the gathering.

On Wednesday, Grubb noted that the council still hasn’t endorsed the current plan, asking what might happen if they opted not to move forward. Despite a previous vote committing to new construction, advertising for the project notes that renovation of the current building is still a possibility.

McElravey responded that councilors could ultimately hold up the expected timeline.

Resident Mike Clifford pointed to concerns about future tangible revenue loss and longer-term finances.

“I strongly suggest that you need to do your due diligence,” Clifford said. “You have no idea what the impact is going to be.”

Clifford noted that roof repairs and other maintenance issues with the building that currently houses the department were never addressed despite funding set aside in a previous bond approved by voters in 2014.

“I still want answers as to why the repairs weren’t made to the police station when they should have been,” Clifford said.

As councilors and members of the advisory Municipal Building Review Task Force spearheading the project began debating past efforts, resident Steven Biron interrupted from the audience.

“We’ll never get anywhere if we keep looking backwards,” Biron said.

Former Town Administrator Gary Ezovski spoke in favor of the project, expressing frustration with some of the questions – and what he said is a tendency in the town to delay needed maintenance and short-fund projects over cost concerns.

“You can’t work that way,” Ezovski said. “The tax rate isn’t the only thing. It’s important, but there are issues in the community that we need to face. We got so frugal that we don’t do anything.”

“We need a real police station,” he said. “We have never built a real police station in North Smithfield. Let’s recognize that we are a modern community.”

Additional informational sessions where residents will have the chance to ask questions have been scheduled for Monday, Oct. 2 and Tuesday, Oct. 24 starting at 6:45 p.m. at Town Hall at 83 Green St. More information can be found here.

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