NORTH SMITHFIELD – Town officials and representatives from Tecton Architects held a final public informational session this week on the upcoming vote on whether or not the town should take out an $18 million bond to finance construction of a new police station, with much debate focused on the project’s long-term financial impact on taxpayers.
“I think there’s some creative ways to look at this financing,” said Budget Committee Chairperson Christine Earley when asked about her board’s take on the project. “It’s a very complex issue.”
Earley’s statement followed information presented on Tuesday, Oct. 24 by Finance Director Antony St. Onge, which showed that the town could make 5 percent interest by investing bond money that isn’t immediately pulled down. St. Onge discussed various possible ways to lessen the impact on taxpayers, including potentially using some of the town’s fund balance for payback, and/or delaying principal payments on the bond for the first two years. The finance director noted that a delayed repayment plan would add $287,000 to the total 20 year debt for the project, but would allow the town to retire millions in other debt payments for past initiatives, potentially lessening the needed tax increase.
Councilor Paulette Hamilton questioned the wisdom of a delayed repayment plan.
“As everyone knows, when you only pay interest, you’ve got to pay it at the end,” Hamilton said. “Why would we want to delay the inevitable? I’d rather have the bad news right away, and know what I’m paying.”
Paul Vadenais, chairman of the Municipal Buildings Review Task Force overseeing the project, noted that the town is on track to retire $10 million in debt by 2027.
“The impact on the individual taxpayer would be lessened,” Vadenais said. “This is not a new concept. We’ve done it in the town before. It makes sense.”
Vadenais noted that the remainder of the town’s debt is slated to be retired over the next 3-4 years.
“We have no other debt coming up,” Vadenais said. “That’s why it was recommended by the finance director.”
Resident Michael Clifford questioned figures showing that the town could make money by reinvesting.
“I always thought that wasn’t the place for government, to take money and gamble it on an investment,” Clifford said, noting that the town will be paying the bond back at 4 percent interest, while investing at 5. “It’s a scam.”
Clifford said he felt town officials have not fully laid out the financial implications, calculating factors like potential loss in revenue, or the impact of other town projects.
“You haven’t done your due diligence and you’re not being fiscally responsible,” said Clifford. “There are people in the room that have an agenda. They don’t care if everyone in this town can afford to pay these increases.”
The conversation marked the last of three public forums aimed at educating residents about the project prior to the election scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 7. Councilors voted earlier this year to include the $18 million bond question on the ballot for the special election, which will also include choosing a congressional delegate for District 1. Early voting has already begun at Town Hall at 83 Green St. and will continue during normal business hours, which are Monday through Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Friday from 8 a.m. to noon.
The election will provide North Smithfield voters a chance to weigh in on an effort that’s been discussed and debated for many years. Proponents of the bond say that the town is long overdue to construct a modern police facility, with the current headquarters – in a renovated former school on Smithfield Road – in need of millions in repairs that would still only bring it to sub-standard condition.
Police Chief Tim Lafferty noted that North Smithfield has had a police force since 1871 – and has never built a police station.
Still, some in town have remained skeptical of the current effort, and concerned that many residents remain unaware of the upcoming vote. Resident Richard Grubb became involved in September, and has since made it his mission to increase turnout, personally financing some advertisements and signage, and running a social media campaign.
Similar concerns led Council President Kimberly Alves and Hamilton to try to remove the question from the ballot last month, but the initiative died in a 2-2 vote. At the time, Councilor Douglas Osier was out of town, and on Tuesday, Clifford confronted him on the issue, asking if he felt it was fiscally responsible to promote the project.
Osier responded that he believes it is time for voters to make the call.
“If someone steps into the voting booth and they don’t want this project, by all means, vote it down,” Osier said. “We’ve been talking about this project for ten years. We’ve been arguing about it at almost every meeting. At this point, it needs to go back to the residents.”
St. Onge responded to Clifford’s comments about investing the bond money.
“This isn’t scheisty work,” he said. “This is investment.”
If a delayed repayment plan is not implemented, the bond is expected to equate to a tax increase of 68 cents per thousand in value, or roughly $236 annually on a $350,000 home, or $372 annually for a home valued at $550,000. With a modified repayment plan, St. Onge estimated the obligation would result in an 18 cent increase in 2025 and 2026, with the remaining increase to be put in effect after other debts are retired. The finance director declined to give precise figures for how much increase taxpayers could face the following year but noted, “we have other interests within our capability to mitigate that.”
Earley noted that the budget committee has declined to officially weigh in as they were not given time to fully vet the long term implications.
“We do look at that impact that the budget has on the tax rate,” she said.
Earley agreed with St. Onge’s assessment that it would make sense to put bond funds in a safe investment, such as a money market. And if the $18 million is ultimately approved by voters, she said that her board will look at ways to minimize the impact on taxpayers.
“Something has to happen with the police station,” Earley said. “And I don’t think construction costs are going to drop dramatically.”
For his part, Lafferty noted that, “the world changed,” when George Floyd was killed during an arrest in 2020, illustrating the importance of proper law enforcement, and the impact of the decisions of just one officer.
“That’s one of the foundations of a town or a city, is to have law and order, and you saw what happens when you don’t,” the chief said.
“This is a good deal. These are professionals who have done the numbers,” added Lafferty. “You have to make decisions based on the betterment of the whole. I think it’s a financially sound decision. The town deserves it.”
Lafferty noted that just recently a person planning to vote, “no,” on the ballot question visited the current station and changed their mind stating,”no one should work in this kind of a place.”
The North Smithfield Police Department will hold an open house for those who would like to view the conditions of the current headquarters at 575 Smithfield Road on Saturday, Oct. 28 from 9-11 a.m.