BURRILLVILLE – For Burrillville Town Manager Michael Wood, it seems, the question as to the state of his town has a pretty straightforward answer:
Wood, who has managed the town for some 24 years, says it’s good; with the exception of the ongoing battle against a power plant that’s had residents and town officials virtually united in their opposition.
The three year fight, he noted, may finally be nearing an end as the state’s Energy Facility Siting Board – the appointed group that will decide the fate of the project – finishes up hearings on the proposal by the Chicago-based developer.
“I think we can win and we should win if everything is fair,” said Wood. “I think we’ve made the case we needed to make to win the fight. The community has been in an uproar for quite awhile.”
But aside from the battle against that $1 billion project, the long time manager notes that things are going smoothly in the town of Burrillville.
Wood spoke before a crowd at a “state of the towns” address organized by the Burillivlle Lions Club along with North Smithfield Town Administrator Gary Ezovski. From well-maintained facilities, to the town’s strong financial position, Wood pointed to positive developments in Burrillville over the past several years. He noted that municipal staffing is pretty much the same as it was when he started working for the town 24 years ago.
“Most of our buildings and facilities are up to date and state of the art,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of work on our schools to keep those up. We’re not going to have to spend a lot of money.”
Current improvements to the Public Works and Animal Control headquarters, he noted, are being paid for out of pocket, without loans. Last year, he said, the town began a pro-active effort to fight against problems with narcotics.
“That’s one of the most important things we’ve put in place over the past couple of years,” he said.
Wood also cited recent achievements including completion of the town’s comprehensive plan, and a water line recently installed between Congress Park to Clear River Drive. He pointed to successes in efforts to redevelop the town’s villages, including recent improvements in Pascoag.
“My most important objective, as given to me by the Town Council, is redevelopment ,” the manager said, pointing out that projects like the Stillwater Mill Complex in Harrisville, required commitment by all parties, even as town politics changed.
“All of the people in charge of our community have recognized the importance of the redevelopment projects,” said Wood. “You had to stay the course.”
In North Smithfield, by comparison, it seems progress has been a little more rocky.
Ezovski, the administrator in North Smithfield since 2016, took over a town divided by politics and has since been part of efforts to redirect projects developed by previous boards, like bond-financed improvements to town and school facilities.
He said that his first major task as administrator was trying to get people on the same page.
“I felt the most important thing we needed to do was make sure that people started working together,” said Ezovski. “People can have internal reasons and external reasons to be unhappy and at odds with one another.”
Ezovski noted that North Smithfield also recently completed its comprehensive plan, and pointed to volunteer efforts such as work being done at the Little Red Schoolhouse. He pointed to the purchase of emergency equipment, and the return of resource officers to schools, as recent achievements. The administrator noted that North Smithfield has a proposal for one of the state’s largest solar farms moving through the approval process, and has two large housing developments on the horizon. The high school, he said, is a silver medal winner.
For events like the town’s annual Pumpkinfest, and a recent fireworks display, Ezovski noted the the Department of Public Works, fire, police and emergency management all had to come together.
“It’s those things that really make us communities, and they’re what I’m most proud of,” he said.
The two-term administrator noted that design work is underway for improvements at the high school, that the town will soon begin long-awaited construction at the elementary school, and that officials recently broke ground on improvements to the former Kendall Dean school.
But the progress was not without controversy. Bond-financed improvements to town and school facilities were approved by voters in 2014. But the town’s change in leadership in 2016 came with a change in direction – and delays – for much of the work, and some have questioned the resulting increased budgets and delays, troubles the administrator eluded to at the Wednesday night event.
“There are some who believe we are well beyond debt capacity and that’s just not true anymore,” said Ezovski, also referencing the need for high-quality improvements. “I believe in the long term ‘good enough’ costs more. We need to pursue value in what we do as communities.”
The administrator noted that a project – needed for 15 years – to extend town water lines is finally underway, and that officials have started to increase North Smithfield’s fund balance – an account to pay for large ticket items.
“It’s not quite as big as Burrillville’s,” Ezovski said. “We are striving every day to be people who are working together.”
The historic meeting of neighboring leaders took place in Uncle Ronnie’s Red Tavern function room, a space where former club president Thomas Tatro noted that the Burrillville Lions have met for 70 years.
“We are very pleased, delighted and honored to have such a great group here tonight,” said Tatro. “We like to say we’re the Lions Club serving Burrillville and North Smithfield.”
In questions after the leaders respective addresses, residents asked for progress updates on issues such as bridge repair in North Smithfield, and the Nasonville Fire Department in Burrillville, questioning while they still receive bills when the district is no longer in operation. Wood could provide few answers about the department, which is run independently from the town.
“What I do know is there’s some financial issues they have to resolve. There’s some personal issues they have to resolve,” said Wood. “I don’t know if they’re going to survive or not.”
Harrisville Fire Chief Michael Gingell, who was in attendance at the meeting, noted that the department is not in operation, but other districts are responding to their calls, and that some details of the issue have not been discussed as they are still in litigation.
While Wood himself is a Lion who make such stops at the club annually, Ezovski said that it was his first visit to a Lions’ meeting in 51 years.
“That last meeting was one where I was provided a (college) scholarship,” said Ezovski. “I am here to tell you that your work is important. It was dramatically important to me.”
The two leaders, both graduates from the University of Rhode Island, said they met in 2001 when a company owned by Ezovski was called in to remediate water problems caused by a petroleum leak at a Mobil station in Pascoag.
“I got to know him fairly well back then,” Wood said of the neighboring leader. “He’s a good friend to Burrillville and always has been.”
For his part, Ezovski was full of compliments for Wood’s progress and longtime management.
“We’re not quite in the state that Burrillville is yet, but we’re trying hard,” Ezovski said.