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SMITHFIELD — A town councilman told colleagues and staff during an April 2 meeting that his district’s needs are being neglected.
Marlon Lee, who represents District 1, said the town “kicks the can down the road” when it comes to providing for East Smithfield’s needs.
Councilman Emery Ashley agreed.
“Every year, we have residents from District 1 who list their drainage issues and it’s the same cycle,” said Ashley.“We talk about the Sarah Yard Center only being open 12 hours per week, Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and some Saturdays. A few times there have been police meetings there, but it’s not run as a community center like it should be.”
Ashley said residents in these communities come back year after year and nothing ever gets done.
“We’ve been talking about Richard Johnson Park,” said Ashley. “Now we have Councilman John Dunn saying ‘Let’s find land for new parks.’ What is the plan? What are we going to do? We’re not doing any homework. But the town manager (Mike Scott) needs to direct his department heads to see what needs to be done.”
“With all respect, when we look at projects, we look at the ongoing costs,” said Dunn. “We’re not trying to shoot it down.”
“But it’s how the people vote,” said Lee. “I’m tired of talking and talking. The town manager knows what’s going on.”
District 4 Councilman David Barbour said he’d love to see West Smithfield get half the money that’s spent on other areas.
“We’re not accomplishing anything if we aren’t working together,” said Barbour. “I don’t have to vote for anything outside my district and just focus on my needs. But I should be ashamed of myself if I’m not committed to helping others. The deal is we’re looking to see what we can do to improve the town. I appreciate Lee’s commitment to his district. I think we’re all focused on what we can do for communities. But if we fail in one, we fail in all.”
Mayor Pro-tem Travis Scott said the council needs to look at “the big picture.”
“I feel we’re on a good start in the budget process,” said Scott. “It’s important we be proactive rather than reactive to get things done. Financially, the town is very stable. We have to look at the big picture rather than personal agendas.”
“But Councilman Lee is right,” said Ashley. “We’ve talked about it for the entire seven years I’ve served on the council. We need to do something.”
Lee and Tony Nixon, chairman of the East Smithfield Improvement Organization, took this reporter on a tour of the Sarah Yard Community Center, Smith Collins Park and the Woodall Heights community.
Lee said the neglect of his communities hasn’t happened overnight. He cited his predecessor Charles E. Williams, who served on the council for 24 years, as a lone voice calling for change.
“That’s how I feel,” said Lee. “I’m only one vote. We’re supposed to be a team and we need to practice what we preach. The citizens of my community come to the council meetings to discuss their issues. They’re told to wait until budget time and nothing happens.”
One negative thing Lee cited was the closing of the Eva Ennis swimming pool when the Smithfield Recreation and Aquatics Center opened.
“The pool should have been fixed,” said Lee. “We’ve added a splash pad where the kids can get wet, but we miss the pool.”
Lee questioned council members who want to purchase land for more parks rather than improving existing parks like Smith Collins.
“We can’t maintain what we’ve got,” said Lee.
Lee said some issues the town needs to address are drainage, blighted houses, permitting natural gas for property owners and improving the streets.
“Perception is reality,” said Nixon. “The blighted houses in East Smithfield, along with the fact that East Smithfield has more public housing than any other district. These are all issues we’ve been talking about for years.”
The Smith Collins Park has baseball and softball fields, picnic grounds, a playground, concession stands and a tennis court. But there are drainage issues at the park and trees and shrubs beyond the outfield fence that need to be cut, said Lee.
With improvements, Lee said the Smith Collins ballfield could host Little League baseball and tournaments. Another parks and recreation issue Lee cited are the Sarah Yard Community Center’s limited hours.
“The children can play in the park, but we also need a place for indoor activities,” said Lee. “The community center is a valuable asset which needs to be utilized.”
Sarah Yard is equipped with computers, a portable video game system, a kitchen area, tables and chairs.
“It’s a good center,” said Lee. “But it needs to be more accessible to serve the community. Perhaps Johnston Community College students could be used to keep the building open.”
Lee said Sarah Yard was a mentor to him.
“With her, you always had a place,” said Lee. “She made sure the kids had somewhere to go after school, on weekends after school, she made sure we stayed out of trouble. We’re failing her name today, we’re failing her legacy.”
In the Woodall Heights community, Nixon said some older residents feel like prisoners in their own homes because they’re afraid, especially at night.
One resident, Maxine Hunter, has lived in the community for more than 40 years. She said there needs to be more community pride.
“People need to keep up their homes,” said Hunter. “We can make things better.”
Hunter said the only reason she feels safe is because she has an alarm system.
Throughout the neighborhood, there are blighted, abandoned houses. One example is the house located at 1014 Blount St., which ends at Brogden Road.
Both Nixon and Lee said the house has been abandoned for more than a decade and needs to be demolished.
“With Brogden Road growing, it’s a gateway to Smithfield,” said Nixon. “Is this what you want people to see?”
The town manager wouldn’t respond to the comments made by Lee at the council meeting.
“I prefer not to comment on comments made by a council member during their comment period,” said Scott. “I have the utmost respect and admiration for all of our council members and believe they all work very hard to find the best way to spend taxpayer money so our citizens receive the most service benefit possible.”
Scott said the town staff is working on a draft budget.
“When I present the ‘proposed budget’ required by statute, to the council in May, it is my responsibility to include in the proposed budget those items and programs approved by the council during the budget process,” said Scott. “The process we are currently involved in will decide what programs and purchases will be included in each district in the proposed budget and the final budget ordinance for fiscal year 2019-20.”
Lee said he didn’t blame Scott, saying the neglect of his district goes back to long before he became town manager.
“Hopefully, now we can do something,” said Lee.
Mayor Andy Moore said neither Lee or Ashley were present at last Thursday’s budget planning session.
“We are elected to represent all districts of the town, not just one area. Our budget sessions are designed to get input from all councilmembers. This is the time to plan,” said Moore. “Councilman Lee nor Councilman Ashley were present at Thursday’s budget meeting. At this meeting the Manager presented his draft preliminary budget and was the time to begin discussing the needs and wants of each councilmember and district.”