NORTH SMITHFIELD – Residents are on track to have the final say on whether or not the town should borrow up to $18 million to fund improvements to police headquarters at a special election this November.
The North Smithfield Town Council voted 4-1 Tuesday night to have bond counsel craft a resolution to send to the General Assembly for approval, as required to get the issue on a ballot before voters.
Whether that funding would be used to construct a new facility, or to perform major renovations to the current headquarters, remains unclear.
Paul Vadenais, chairman of the town-appointed Municipal Buildings Review Task Force spearheading the project, brought an end to the council’s discussion of creating two potential ballot questions – one in favor of new construction and one for renovations – by stating that costs for the two options would be similar. Vadenais said the town can build a new, 14,850-square-foot complex plus an outbuilding for $18 million. Renovations, meanwhile, were estimated at $17.5 million.
“You need to know if the voters are willing to spend money before you can pick the final plan. That’s what it comes down to,” said Vadenais. “All of this is conceptual. These estimates are good faith, honest numbers, but you will never have the accurate, exact number until you go out to bid.”
The $18 million bond is expected to cover a scaled-back version of original plans for a larger, 21,000-square-foot facility first presented by Tecton Architects in 2021. Members of the MBRTF put a hold on the project in 2022 amid a rising and volatile construction market to allow costs to level out.
“Because of escalation, it costs more money to build a smaller building,” Vadenais explained Tuesday of the current design plans.
Vadenais estimated that payback of an $18 million bond would lead to a tax increase of $244 annually on the average North Smithfield home.
The vote to move a ballot question forward follows months of debate – and years of cost estimates and redesigns – of plans for the deteriorating former schoolhouse on Smithfield Road known as the town Annex, which currently serves as police department headquarters.
The project has been at the center of political tensions in town since 2016, when a previous bond-financed initiative to renovate the building was halted – and the board and architect in charge at the time summarily dismissed.
It was a change in direction taken by a newly seated council seven years ago, and the circumstances surrounding that decision – and the fact that bond funding approved by voters in 2014 was never spent on improvements to the building – were still subject to heated debate Tuesday night.
“I voted. You stole it from me,” resident Michael Clifford shot at the group gathered this week.
“They didn’t steal it from you,” said Police Chief Tim Lafferty. “The money was spent on honest mistakes in over-costs. That’s why you don’t renovate. You build new because the costs are more exact.”
The long repeated positions came out following an initiative by Councilor Paulette Hamilton to meet with Eric Army, the architect taken off the project seven years ago. Army provided an update on his firm’s old plans for renovations, to the dismay of many who have worked on more recent, detailed proposals with current firm Tecton.
“This is a total slap in the face to the task force who has years of construction knowledge and experience with public and private facilities of all kinds,” said MBRTF member David Chamberland in an email prior to the meeting. “Our committee hired an architect who is an expert in police station design and construction and has worked diligently with us to provide three options that could be considered for a bond referendum in November of this year.”
“Do you know how long this took?” Lafferty asked regarding the detailed design plans at the meeting. “I sat with Tecton on two different occasions going line by line.”
“Had we put some money into this building over the last ten years, maybe we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” Hamilton said.
It was Councilor Douglas Osier who pushed for more immediate action this week, noting that the town does not have time to wait for a detailed proposal from Army and still meet deadlines to get a question before voters in November. The General Assembly is expected to break in early June, Osier noted, and costs will only continue to rise.
“The town can’t afford another delay and it would be fiscally irresponsible to do so,” Osier said. “We need to do what is best for the residents and cannot go backwards. We need to use realistic present-day numbers.”
Of those who, like Clifford, have said that the town ignored a voter mandate by not spending funds from the previous bond on the property, Osier added that the 2014 ballot question did not include the word “renovate.”
“From a bond issuance perspective, complete renovation at the Annex was not a mandate, and while it may have been discussed in a plan by the council at that time, there was nothing binding to that plan,” Osier said. “Rehabs and repairs have been made and are ongoing, but it is not a sustainable solution.”
“Tecton has the history and experience to get it done correctly,” Osier said. “Waiting to 2024 is not an option.”
Further, he added, members of the MBRTF have recommended Tecton’s work and, “If we appoint people to positions we need to value their input.”
Vadenais said the town might not need to spend the full $18 million.
“That’s a ‘not to exceed,'” he said.
Vadenais noted that construction could start in September 2024 for Tecton’s, “total package,” construction plan, which includes the cost of potential demolition of the old structure.
Hamilton cast the only vote against sending the resolution.
“I’m afraid if it’s rejected then we have nothing to fall back on and we have to start over,” she said.
Lafferty said he has faith the initiative will pass.
“Let the voters decide,” Lafferty said. “The people I talk to, they want it. They’re embarrassed of that building.”