WESTERLY — Citing financial uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, a majority of members of the Town Council have voted against pursuing a new bond to pay for road and infrastructure projects.
The council, during its July 13 meeting, rejected a motion to ask voters to consider a $5 million bond as a referendum question on the November ballot. Councilors Sharon Ahern, Caswell Cooke Jr., Suzanne Giorno, Karen Cioffi and Brian McCuin voted against moving the issue forward to a future council meeting, while Council President Christopher Duhamel and Councilor William Aiello voted in favor.
Ahern said the town faced reduced revenues and noted the council’s avowed commitment to keep a close eye on the current budget. During budget deliberations, the council asked Town Manager J. Mark Rooney to develop a list of possible reductions that could made during the course of the year if revenues fall off and other financial problems occur.
“I do not think this is the right election cycle to ask people to vote in more money. I think we have very uncertain revenue and somehow we are not acknowledging that if we keep putting financial questions on the ballot,” Ahern said.
Rooney said he was initially hesitant to recommend seeking approval of a bond but became convinced it was the best approach after studying the current low cost of asphalt, recent favorable road project contracts the town has secured, and the low interest rates of about 1.5% and other costs offered by the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank. Over the course of the 20-year life of a bond, Rooney said the town would pay less for the road work than if it funded the work through the annual budget.
The $15 million bond approved by voters in 2018 is nearly spent down, with just $2 million of it not encumbered.
Paying for road projects with bonds and allocations in the annual town operating budget would allow for a “four-fold” increase in the amount of work that would be accomplished, Duhamel said.
“It makes sense to follow the program. I think the public has been appreciative of the amount of roads that have been paved,” Duhamel said.
Aiello pushed for support of a road bond and noted the town could ask voters to approve “up to” $5 million or a lesser figure, which would allow town officials flexibility on how much debt to take on.
Cooke said he was reluctant to vote against potential road work but said he preferred to wait and let the next council decide.