Ask the Council Candidates: Week Four
Patch's final installment in a series of questions to the Newport City Council candidates.
In anticipation of the Nov. 2 election, Patch has been sharing the thoughts and views of Newport's council candidates over the past several weeks. Each week, we've posed a new question to those running, both at-large and for the ward seats, to give you a glimpse at where they stand on the city's most important issues.
This week, we conclude with an issue concerning the $30 million bond for a new elementary school: If the school bond passes, what measures do you propose the city take to assure the timely sale of the existing buildings? If the bond fails, what do you think the plan should be to finance the needed upgrades and repairs to our current facilities?
Herbert Armstrong: "If it passes, we've got to start marketing the two buildings we already have possession of as progressively as possible. A recent article said the commercial market in Newport is stabilizing. We need to get a good marketing effort that could attract some good developers. If it doesn't, we've kind of got ourselves boxed in now, because it will be difficult for the city to fund the repairs. What we need to do is concentrate on renovating just one school. We don't need more than one school. Select the best one in best location that will be the most practical to renovate and start looking for funding to do that. It will take a new bond between five to eight million."
Rebecca Bringhurst: Did not respond.
Stephen Coyne, Incumbent: "One of the advantages that Newport will have if the bond is approved is the window of time (3 years) in which we will be able to market the various school properties that will be abandoned. In the past, properties have been handed over to the city and it was only after the official abandonment that the city began its process of determining highest and best use for the empty schools. With the approval of the bond and therefore a guarantee that all other elementary school facilities will be abandoned by a certain date, the city can begin to formulate a cohesive plan on what to do with the properties and hopefully expedite getting them back on the tax rolls. I have had many conversations with various members of the School Committee regarding the defeat of the bond and what the next steps would or should be. First, if you maintain three elementary schools properties throughout the city, Sullivan, Coggeshall and Underwood and therefore abandon completely Cranston-Calvert and the Triplett School property on Broadway, you can substantially reduce the amount of money necessary to modernize the remaining schools. The School Committee is estimating a cost of approximately $20 million to bring the four existing schools to code. Using simple math, that estimates a cost per school of about $5 million or $15 million.which is less than the price tag of the new elementary school even with the 42 percent reimbursement from the state. Over the last five years, the School Committee and Superintendent have had surpluses in excess of $5 million. Had we been investing that money (which would have been interest free as there was no bond issued to get it) into much needed upgrades and improvements over this period of time, instead of sitting on that money as a 'wise business move', we would now be looking at having to invest approximately $10 million in our elementary schools while still being able to provide, and afford, smaller learning environments for elementary school students in the City of Newport."
Naomi Neville: "The best thing is if the bond passes, I would say to look at each property, review the current zoning for how it fits in each certain neighborhood, and decide if it's properly zoned for the the desired new usage. That would at least help the potential. I think if it's properly zoned it would prepare future buyers. . . We could verify that by having a public workshop. We would notify all the neighbors to discuss potential building use. If you know what the neighbors want you can zone it towards that. If the bond failed, legally we'd be making some fire code upgrades to some existing buildings. I think we have to . . its almost like starting back at the drawing board. We'll have to re-look at the existing buildings and think more creatively about how students are allocated in existing buildings. . . We can go after a new bond. It's not as if the state won't agree to a renovation plan, it has to meet all their guidelines."
Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano, Incumbent: "The sale of existing buildings will require our Planning Department with outside professionals to evaluate the condition and potential sales viability of the current structures. It will be very important to have the neighborhood/community input as to their future sale and use. It is important to note, the City has been successful in the sale and re-adaptation of the following buildings: Callander, John Clarke, Lenthal, Mumford, and Potter schools. All are on the tax rolls, which benefits the taxpayers. If the bond fails, we must take steps immediately to find the revenue to comply with fire code and accessibility mandates, most likely through a special bond referendum to our taxpayers. The children can no longer be treated as pawns, as it is our (everyone) duty, to correct the deficiencies which now exist. Hopefully we would receive some assistance from both state and federal governments."
Susan Perkins: "The way that the city goes about selling and leasing city owned properties is to ask for a proposal to be submitted to city council. They have put it out somewhere to have these requests come in. One thing is I know is that they don't do too much 'advertising.' Their website would be a good vehicle to get the word out since I don't think they can work with real estate companies. . .The bottom line is that they have to get it out there that these properties are in the neighborhood. . .They're going to have to figure out a way to make it work. If there's state or federal aid available we need to do that. I can't imagine cutting services to get this money."
Stephen Waluk, Incumbent: "We need to be aggressive in making sure the zoning is right for the sale of the buildings. . . and make sure regulatory process is smooth and ready to go. A lot depends on the market; Cary and Sheffield are sitting vacant because commercial property isn't all that enticing right now. Hopefully the economy will improve. We'll let the School Committee make that job number one. I've said all along there should be a back up plan now. It's the School Committee's responsibility to formulate a plan on how they're going to upgrade."
Harry Winthrop: "If this bond issue fails, the taxpayers are going to pay for this directly. . . It's important taxpayers understand that. . . We should put the property up and try to sell it for the market value; we're not going to give city property away. We need to get a fair and equitable amount . . . and make sure we get the most out of these buildings. With the new school we'll get almost $1 million a year in savings. If we have to renovate the schools, we're going to spend that $20 million and have debt service. We're not going to get ten cents on the return."
Charles Duncan, Incumbent: "Those properties become the property of the city of Newport, not the property of the school department. I'm in favor of leasing. If we sell it two things come into play, they can zone commercially. The owner could sell to a box store if they wanted because the zoning is in place. If we lease it we have control of the person who wants to expand to a bigger facility, and we don't have to lease to them. It also gives us a steady stream of income. If that bond passes, we would have four of five properties that we have a steady income coming from. . .The easiest way would be to put up another bond for repairs and upgrades. Right now we'll be in a real bind anyway because of the sewers and water mandates out. With bonding we could extend the length. . . to fill the conditions and build the repairs."
Alan Sullivan: "If the bond passes, to assure the timely sale of the school property, it would be tough because in these economic times buildings like that aren't selling overnight. We would have to get the most we can for them. So I would probably assume the best thing to do is targeting prospective buyers in different publications and get a really top notch sales realtor to list the properties. Unfortunately that won't be easy. If it doesn't pass . . .I don't advocate raising taxes. We would have to cut some programs, and cut costs to get money for the school renovations. We could look into different grants out there. I don't advocate proposing a bond for the repairs, my answer would be to cut costs where we can to find the money."
Michael Farley: "We should offer the Underwood property in a sealed bid auction in the first October after the new school opens. Sheffield and Carey should be put to bid immediately. With respect to those schools, we should reduce our expectations below what we are being told is market-value. We should also ensure that zoning at those two sites includes uses which are desirable, but also compatible with the neighborhoods, such as office space, recreation, etc. If the council needs input in order to know what is compatible with a neighborhood, then the council should be calling for those workshops now. We have to learn from the last council's mistakes at Sheffield School. We lost an opportunity to sell Sheffield School in 2008 after my opponent called for a neighborhood workshop after a buyer expressed an interest in Sheffield. As we all know, the buyer closed his Newport business, purchased a mill building in Warren and took the prospect of 50 high-paying software jobs to that town. We can't afford to miss another opportunity like that one. If the bond fails, which I don't believe will happen, we need to petition the state and federal government for additional funding. Construction would be delayed by at least two years, and this delay would be devastating; but the fact is, the city hasn't set aside the money necessary to replace or upgrade our aging elementary school buildings. I support passing the school bond because I believe it appears to be the most efficient way to improve our school facilities."
Justin McLaughlin, Incumbent: "Following bond approval, the Pell School is not scheduled to open until September 2013, thus the three school properties won't be returned to the city any earlier than mid-2013. That provides ample time in which to assess the appropriate uses of the properties, to make any zoning and Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP) changes needed to achieve their best use and highest value, and to aggressively market the properties to realize the best results for the taxpayers of Newport. Hopefully, by 2013 the economic conditions in Rhode Island will have improved and the investment opportunities provided by the Underwood, Cranston-Calvert and Coggeshall properties will be attractive to buyers. In the meantime, we need to deal with the Sheffield and Carey properties in the same aggressive manner. Unfortunately, our interest in selling doesn't necessarily produce buyers. We owe it to the taxpayers to be patience so as to eventually get the best possible use and price.
If the bond is not approval, the challenge will not simply be a matter of how to pay for upgrades and repairs to existing facilities. The School Committee and City Council will be faced with difficult choices that will require some tough decisions. These will involve the wisdom of upgrading all four elementary schools, and if not all four, then which ones; the best use of existing capacity (including space at Rogers and Thompson) if using that space would reduce the amount of repair and upgrade funds required; and the need to pay for the work at a time of rising costs (such as health insurance premiums), the impact of the new state school funding formula and the likely decline in state and federal education funds, and the need to make other important infrastructure investments in the city that will reduce the funds available to fix-up old schools. Hopefully, voters will realize that the Pell School proposal is a good solution to a compelling need that can be achieved at reasonable cost and that it will provide environmental and instructional opportunities that will enhance the education of all of our elementary students. The alternatives will ultimately cost the city more in the way of expenses and lost revenue and will not provide the educational benefits that a new school will offer. I plan to vote for the Pell School bond and ask everyone to join me in making this important choice for the future of the children of Newport."
Kathryn Leonard, Incumbent: "If the school bond passes, the city should have the 'excessed' properties appraised. Then a commercial property expert should be consulted to see to whom the properties should be marketed to get the goal that the city wants to achieve. I personally feel that the city needs good jobs and that we should woo companies to come here to provide such. If the school bond fails, the School Committee should begin to formulate a Plan B to be presented to the City Council for financing. It appears that any re-construction and/or upgrades are also eligible for the State reimbursement. Each building to be used as an elementary school would then be evaluated and the appropriate information gathered---how much is needed to bring each building up to code, contact the state for reimbursement numbers, and just move forward to make sure that the kids are safe and in a good environment so that they can continue to learn."
Rudd Hall: "Selling in a timely manner, it should be dealt with as any homeowner would do. I came out as saying I don't think you should sell just to sell right now. We should wait until we can get a reasonable price. If that money's gone, I would have to go back to my platform of raising revenue and decreasing spending."