Astroturf Wars in Cranston

UPDATE: Since posting on this subject, I contacted Tony Lupino, Council Member at-large, to ask about his position on the astroturf proposal. His response was as follows:

The Council is waiting on a detailed document to understand if the initial expense of $750,000. will be offset by savings in maintenance, upkeep and personnel costs. The $750K might be offset by private donations and sponsorship. Besides, with an artificial surface we may be able to open the Stadium up to more “for profit” events, thus generating more revenues for the City. Keep in mind, the high school sports teams are not the majority users of the field. Many youth groups (not tied to the public schools) are the biggest users. The Stadium may be able to “pay for itself” with an artificial surface.

I know I’m in the minority on this issue, but I believe it has merit. I’m awaiting the final numbers.

You say the schools are not getting an increase. I say let’s see what the Council can come up with.

He then passed my email on to Paula McFarland, Vice Chair of the City Council, who provided this response:

We are awaiting the additional information that was presented at the planning commission meeting. I agree with Tony that the project may have merit to create additional revenues within the City. Let’s see?

Regarding the Astroturf within the capital budget and your question: Do you think this is the best use of education funds, considering that schools are not receiving any increase? However, we cannot use capital funds for education as most items are for long-term cost. The Astroturf is located in the Parks & Recreation Area of the Capital Budget and not with the School Department Projects. For Parks and Recreation is this just one project which totals $1.5 million potential in spending for the coming year on capital issues facing the City’s recreation.

The School Dept’s Capital Projects, which are not paid for within the School’s Operating Budget, but paid by the City’s Operating Budget, is $5.6 million. A much large portion of funding is being made for Capital improvements to the Schools then for Parks and Recreation needs within the City. The list for next year are as followings: East/Briggs – Asbestos Removal, West – Roof, sprinklers, asbestos removal, West Hills – Lockers, sprinklers, Misc. Construction, Gladstone – Sprinklers, replacement of windows, Norwood – replace roof & Waterman – sprinklers, replacement windows for a total of $5.6 million.

I wish we could fund the entire School Dept.’s Operating and Capital Project Budgets with bond money. Then taxpayers could put off paying for education of our children for 10, 20 or 30 years, but is that the way we should starting paying to educate our future — leaving them to paid the tab in the future? I know we don’t want that!

I hope this will clear up any discussions regarding one potential project that may or may not be done within the coming year, which is a Capital Improvement, and the total Capital Projects Bond Funds is $16.3 million. Additionally, the rating agency for borrowing on Capital spending raised the City’s bond rate from BBB- to A- with a positive outlook for the future and did say that our debt to market value is low at 1% and $1,049 per capita. That is extremely low for borrowing for Capital expenditures for an given community in the State of Rhode Island.

My response to Paula McFarland is as follows:

Thanks for your detailed response. I wonder who created the project numbers for the planning commission on the astroturf. I think it would be important to know this to clarify any conflicts of interest. For example, if the projections were created by a potential contractor for installation or the manufacturer of the product, there is obviously an incentive for them to make projections that would be attractive to the city council. In my own head, I can’t see how it will make money. If the cost of the project is about $150,000 a year (when averaged out over the life of the project), do you really think that can be earned in rentals? My guess is that there will be about 25 days available for rental after our schools use the stadium for their own games/needs. What can you charge for this service, $1000, maybe $2000? That means potential earnings of 25,000 to 50,000, not exactly “paying for itself.”

Other questions: Who are these non-school youth groups who have this kind of money and want to use astroturf? Do we have a list of potential customers? How will the city pay for the person who manages the rentals, coordinates the dates for use of the stadium, deals with complaints, problems, etc? What will be done in the event of rain or other inclement weather? Will customers be allowed to reschedule? Will there be increased insurance costs for this field, given that it will get much heavier use?

But as I said, I think it is important to identify the source of this idea, and the source of any projected financial data. Having observed the way government does things, it seems clarifying this question is the first order of business.

And as you know, I am not experienced with this — it’s just my financial gut feeling, which I fully acknowledge could be wrong.

ORIGINAL POST: From School Committee Member Steve Stycos:

MAYOR’S BUDGET MOVES FORWARD

The City Council will vote Monday April 30 on Mayor Napolitano’s budget. The budget’s highlights include borrowing $750,000 to install artificial turf at the Cranston Stadium while providing no new funds for the Cranston schools. Tuesday night only one councilman, Republican Jeffrey Barone, challenged the artificial turf, calling it “ridiculous,” when coupled with level funding for the schools. Napolitano’s parks and recreation director defended the plan at the council budget hearing.

In addition, Council President Aram Garabedian challenged the mayor’s plan to spend $750,000 to expand the Arlington fire house to accommodate a larger fire engine. During the public comment period, I raised several possible ways to free up money to fund the schools. First, I suggested repealing property tax breaks for banks and real estate companies. (The economic development director was not able to detail the costs of the tax breaks).

I also suggested boosting residential recycling by initiating a “pay as you throw” system that charges people who use more than one large bag of trash a week. A pay as you throw system in North Kingstown has produced the state’s highest recycling rates. All savings, I proposed, could fund education. At a minimum a recycling education flyer should be enclosed with the annual tax bill.

I also suggested instituting an energy efficiency program for city buildings similar to the one launched last fall by the school committee. And I urged the council to investigate reducing street lighting which currently costs the city $1.2 million a year.

In addition, I proposed that the city pay the school department’s $117,000 a year sewer bill in exchange for school department custodians picking up trash at city run playgrounds next to schools. Currently two parks department employees drive to Rhodes or Waterman playground, for example, to empty the trash barrels. My proposal, which was endorsed by the school committee, would have school custodians pick up the trash, creating time for the parks employees to do other necessary work. In return, the city would pay the school’s sewer bills.

Finally, I opposed the Astroturf plan as an embarrassment in a year when Napolitano proposes to provide no new money for the schools. The only other citizen to speak was former parks director Bob Clarkin who also opposed the proposal. Clarkin also questioned the size of the capital budget which is about 50 percent more than last year’s budget. With the exception of Barone, council members had no comment on the Astroturf plan.

The plasticized turf would only last ten to twelve years, according to the manufacturer, and interest costs would bring its cost to about $1.5 million, or about $150,000 for the life of the project. That’s the cost of two full-time teachers. While the turf might make the stadium more attractive for rental, there is no way rentals would pay a major portion of construction costs. The proposal indicates that the mayor is more concerned with the condition of sports fields than public school class size.

Citizens who have comments on the budget should contact their council members before Monday night. Phone numbers and email addresses are available on the city’s web site.

Click on the text here to go a webpage that provides both email and phone contact information for Cranston city councilors.

And, for those who missed Earth Day, today is another good day to celebrate:

EARTH DAY EVENT

Thursday April 26, Jeff St Germain of Little Falls Bakery and Café will run a public information meeting at William Hall Library on Broad Street in Cranston on safe biodegradable cleaning products sold by the Shaklee Company. Jeff, who is a strong supporter of the farmers market, welcomes everyone to discuss safer ways to clean and other environmental issues. The meeting will run from 7 to 9 PM downstairs at the William Hall Library and everyone is welcome.

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12 thoughts on “Astroturf Wars in Cranston

  1. Kiersten,

    I find Councilwoman McFarland’s assertion that the magic money in the city-services capital improvement budget can’t be used for the school department unconvincing.

    Unless the capital budget receives $0 from the taxpayers, what is to stop the City Council from reapportioning this years’ proposed tax increase, so that $750,000 less is allocated to the capital fund, and $750,000 more is allocated to the school department?

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Kiersten has some good points. It makes a huge difference who came up with the numbers. Numbers are based on assumptions; who’s doing the assuming, and what are the assumptions.

    Which leads me to ask whether the mayor has any solid indication that other groups would actually pay to rent the stadium? If so, how many dates per year, and at what rate?

    If he were going to a bank for a loan, they’d ask to see stuff like that. It’s called a “business plan.”

  3. At last night’s meeting of the City Council’s Finance Committee, the committee made their amendments to the budget. While they did allocate more funds to the schools, I believe (if I heard correctly) that they allocated $1+ Million to the School’s CAPITAL budget – not their operating budget!

    Perhaps Council members could respond to this amendment…

  4. So there was no new funds for operating, but 1 mill was added for the school’s capital budget? That’s…unfortunate. Perhaps it is as people have been speculating — we are intentionally getting on the road to Caruolo with the final outcome being a large chunk of money coming out of the surplus. Hmmm.

  5. Kiersten, that’s what I thought I heard during the motions to amend the budgets. Sadly, Barbara Polichetti did not appear to be there to cover the meeting; however, Laura Lee Costello from the Herald was there. The Council is tentatively scheduled to meet on 5/9 to vote on the operating budget.

    I agree with you – people’s speculations are morphing into reality re: the Caruolo Act. And we all know where that money will com from: the Rainy Day Fund.

    Tapping the rainy day fund begets a lower bond rating which begets a higher borrowing cost which begets higher interest expense burden. Sounds like 2001 all over again!

  6. I have to agree with the earlier responses that a Caruolo action seems inevitable. For my part, I would rather see the Council go to the Assembly for a waiver of the 5.25% requirement, include a higher school payment and set the tax rate for 2007-08 budget year sooner, rather than after the new fiscal year starts, which would return us to the Laffey days of supplemental tax bills.

    Also, North Kingstown recently built a new stadium for its high school and the Astroturf idea was discussed there, too. If I remember right, the plan was scrapped after it was shown that turf will cause more (and more serious) injuries to those using it. I’m also not sure what groups Councilman Lupino is referring to; Harvest Festival hasn’t been there since 2002. And in any case, the city would charge outside groups to use the Staduim; it is certainly not unreasonable to suggest that the city could set the fee to repair any damage to the natural grass.

    I live a football’s throw from the Stadium (well, maybe for Tom Brady), and I think it would be a sin to plasticize the playing field — which, for those of you who may not know, was the original site of the Narragansett Speedway way back in the 1900′s.

  7. Kiersten, to clarify my earlier post, this week’s Herald sheds more light on the increases to schools:

    “Although Mayor Michael Napolitano’s proposed budget had called for level funding for the school budget, the council’s amendments provide it with some additional money. More than $1 million of the expenses cut will be directed to the school budget through a budget stabilization account, textbooks and asset protection, and the purchase of two new buses. The school system would also save $117,000 in sewer fees, which the city would pay itself, if the amended budget is approved.”

    http://www.cranstonherald.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3528&Itemid=30

    Laura Lee Costello does a great job in capturing the meeting’s highlights.

    Be well,
    The Captain

  8. Thanks, Captain. I don’t know what else to say except our schools are already running on limited resources. To cut them back by several million seems to me short-sighted. But we shall see how it all plays out.

  9. Another thing to be remember is that the Astroturf, according to the recreation director (citing the manufacturer’s claims), will last just 12 years and then need to be replaced. The bonds, at least usually, are 30 year bonds. That would mean before the first bonds are retired, the city would have to twice more borrow and spend $750,000 (plus inflation, plus interest) to keep the field usable. I see no way that rentals will come anywhere close to covering the cost. As for fundraising, it will have to begin again every ten years. Is that realistic? I don’t think so.

    We need to focus on class size, not football field conditions. We need additional operating expenses from the city, even if it means raising taxes.

    We should raise taxes the 5.25 percent this year, because next year will be an election year and no one will want to raise taxes, again putting the city and the schools in a financial jam.

  10. Much agreed. The only thing else that I can imagine is going on here is — the Mayor is trying to get some leverage over the teacher’s contract to see if it can be renegotiated early with the teachers giving back this year’s raise in exchange for something else. Didn’t something like that happen back when O’Leary was Mayor — the teachers renegotiated their contract early, gave up their raise and in exchange got their healthcare co-pay taken off for all three years of the contract?

  11. [...] I believe Steve Stycos started this argument, I supported his concerns, and it now looks like Cindy Fogarty is willing to push the boulder a little further uphill. Both Stycos and Fogarty question the wisdom or value of spreading artificial turf at city’s stadium football field. Councilman Navarro is in favor of the idea, although it sounds like the exact terms of the deal are not yet final. [...]

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