School repair bond of $7 million to go before Burrillville voters

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BURRILLVILLE –  The Town Council has sent the issue of financing Burrillville school improvements to the General Assembly, asking for authorization to put the question of taking out a $7 million bond for needed construction projects on the town ballot in this November.

The money will finance a long list of repairs for all five Burrillville public schools, from upgraded media centers, to roofs and boilers.

The council voted in January to approve a five-year, $7.2 million improvement plan, presented by Supt. Michael Sollitto. At the time, Town Manager Michael Wood said construction could be financed with a combination of bonds and town capital funds.

But at a meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 12,  Wood told councilors that after giving the issue some additional thought, he felt the town should borrow more, rather than plan on utilizing reserves, pointing out that the tax revenue Burrillville receives from Ocean State Power is expected to decrease once an agreement with the company expires. 

“Our available cash for capital projects is going to be reduced significantly,” said Wood. “The idea is: put it in the bond issue. We’re not going to have to fund it with capital reserves.”

Wood noted that the town will not have to draw down the full $7 million if all of the money is not needed, and it can be paid back for up to 30 years.

And if all goes smoothly, more than half the funding will come back to the town through housing aid reimbursements from the Rhode Island Department of Education.

“You’re going to get half of your money back,” said Wood.

Councilor Dennis Anderson was first to say he was in favor of borrowing most of the money for school construction.

“It is needed work, and this is the only opportunity to do it for 40 or 50 cents on a dollar,” Anderson said, pointing to the reimbursement.

Councilor Stephen Rawson noted that currently, the town is in a strong financial position thanks to tax revenue that has allowed Burrillville to avoid taking out loans.

“Ocean State Power has offset capital improvement projects in recent years,” said Rawson. “Our credit rating is top notch.”

Wood agreed.

“Can you take on the debt? Yes you can,” the town manager said.

Sollitto noted that some portion of the funding does have to come from the town itself under RIDE requirements, or officials risk forfeiting reimbursement.

Councilor Raymond Trinque asked the superintendent if additional school improvements – beyond the $7 million plus in work – would be needed down the road.

Sollitto pointed out that his original list of hoped for facility upgrades, developed over the past year with input from RIDE, totaled more than $45 million.

“The projects that you’re looking at is our highest priorities,” said Sollitto. “We’re talking roofs, boilers…keeping kids safe and dry.”

Wood noted that there was some urgency to the council’s decision. The deadline for school districts to submit a list of planned construction projects to RIDE for funding approval – known as a “Stage II” application – is Monday, Feb. 17.

And projects must be under contract by the end of December 2022 to qualify for the full reimbursement rate.

Additionally, Wood pointed out that municipalities across Rhode Island are working to get their share of a $250 million Statewide School Construction Bond approved in 2018, and the communities able to execute a plan more quickly will have an advantage

“Everybody in the state is going to be competing for these funds,” Wood said.

Councilors unanimously voted to ask the General Assembly to authorize a ballot question that would allow the town to borrow an amount not to exceed $7 million for school construction. Total costs for the projects – which include things such as replacement of 20-year-old roof shingles at the Burrillville High School gym – are estimated at $7,214,340, with the remaining $214,340 to be funded from the town’s capital reserve.

Trinque said he thinks that as long as the plan is properly communicated to residents, the bond will be approved in the November election.

“I think the town has shown a propensity to back bond issues,” Trinque said. “You have to make an argument to the town. If we did that – honest and forthright – I feel like we’d have a good shot at that bond passing.”

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