It was a small crowd, but it generated some heat.
State Rep. Donna Walsh and Sen. Sue Sosnowski, both Democrats representing New Shoreham in the General Assembly, met with a crowd of about 20 people at the Community Center and the topics ranged from the Deepwater Wind project (the hottest topic) to affordable housing.
Walsh and Sosnowski said at the outset they were on the island to “listen” and so their answers were short on specifics or goals.
“We’re primarily here to listen,” said Walsh. “There are so many positive ideas that come out of meetings like this.”
During this discussion, both women took notes on issues raised. They also stressed that they were here to “support Block Island in whatever it asks.” They said they would try to support Block Island’s needs, especially any formal requests made by the Town Council.
“We look closely to the Town Council for guidance,” commented Sosnowski, but they also took note when one resident said that while the opinion of the council should be respected, it should be considered also as the view of just five people and not of the island as a whole.
Also, on many of the issues, Walsh and Sosnowski pointed Block Island toward various organizations that could assist with solutions. For example, the Economic Development Council (EDC) for assisting small businesses.
Here’s a look at some of the issues that were addressed during the meeting and in a subsequent interview with The Block Island Times.
An electric cable to Block Island
One issue in particular was on the mind of several island residents and took about a half hour to discuss: How will Block Island receive a cable that would connect Block Island to the mainland power grid?
While there is a cable included in Deepwater Wind’s proposed wind farm, some island residents questioned whether or not this was the best option. At this meeting, residents raised several issues about the Deepwater proposal, including the high price the wind farm would cost Rhode Island electricity ratepayers as a whole.
“We absolutely need to have a cable from the mainland,” commented island resident Bill McKernan. “My fear is the Deepwater Wind project is going to be abandoned, and if that happens, what is going to happen with the cable?”
However, despite concerns from residents, both Walsh and Sosnowski expressed an opinion that Deepwater was the best way to get the cable to Block Island.
“That cable is the most important thing for this island,” noted Walsh. “I supported Deepwater for Block Island. Yeah, I know there is a high cost to Rhode Island, but I also know you need that cable.”
“It is no secret I support Deepwater Wind,” said Sosnowski. “The Deepwater issue has begun – let’s see what happens now that the horse is out of the barn.”
Island resident Pat Doyle, who said she opposes Deepwater, responded: “I do not accept the saying ‘the horse is out of the barn.’”
Island resident Rosemarie Ives noted that the Deepwater project was taking longer than originally projected. “It seems that there is a faster chance for Block Island to get the cable instead of getting it through Deepwater,” she said.
Sosnowski responded: “Going through this process takes many public hearings – which you [Ives] were a part of – and that process takes time.”
Also, Ives asked them to reconsider whether the Public Utilities Commission [PUC] would reconsider a standalone cable (a cable separate from Deepwater). Sosnowski responded: “We haven’t been asked to intervene in that process.”
Later, in an interview with The Block Island Times, Walsh said that her top reason for supporting the Deepwater project was to bring the cable to Block Island, but she also added she supported the idea of green energy, as well as the possibility of bringing a new industry to Rhode Island.
“There are no guarantees on other ways to receive the cable,” Walsh told The B.I. Times. “It seems to me that Deepwater has a guarantee.”
Deer and Lyme disease
Another topic that was discussed in length was how to reduce Block Island’s deer population and address Lyme disease on the island.
Linda Spak raised the question about what to do about the “health epidemic” of Lyme disease.
“What would you like us to do?’ asked Sosnowski in response.
Walsh noted that to adress the deer issue – that is the high population of deer on Block Island – the DEM has been working with the town to develop a managed hunt plan to reduce the deer on the island.
“I spoke with Cathy Sparks [of the DEM] and she listed all the things that have to take place as part of this plan,” said Walsh. “She said please be assured that the DEM is working very hard to get this plan out.”
As for the public health aspect – the prevalence of Lyme disease – Walsh said that the DoH must “step up” and address this issue.
Sosnowski said that she’s had Lyme disease twice. “I have it now,” commented Walsh.
Internet on Block Island
Kathy Szabo, the Chamber of Commerce executive director, raised the concern of the inadequate internet service that is provided to Block Island.
“We pay for high speed internet, but we should be paying for dial-up rather than high-speed,” said Szabo.
Neither Walsh nor Sosnowski had answers for the question about how to improve Block Island’s internet. They did suggest talking directly with Verizon, the island’s internet provider. Members in the audience commented they have – “many times.”
McKernan spoke up and provided an update about the work of an island Telecommunications Task Group, a group that he serves on and is working to address the concerns about the Internet. Walsh noted that it seemed like there were several fragmented groups on-island working to solve this problem.
“Are you working with one another?” asked Walsh. “I’m beginning to think you need to communicate with one another.”
When asked by The Block Island Times after the meeting how to help improve the internet, neither Walsh nor Sosnowski had a clear idea about what organization or government body could regulate Verizon’s service to the island.
Improving the economy
The Block Island Times asked Walsh and Sosnowski ways they would suggest improving Block Island’s shoulder seasons (spring and fall) and year-round economy.
Sosnowski first responded by noting that reducing the island’s electricity costs, through a mainland cable provided by Deepwater, would make the island economy “more conducive” to a year round economy.
“I think [places like] the Chamber of Commerce have more suggestions than me,” said Sosnowski. “But I’d be happy to help and listen to their suggestions.”
Walsh agreed, noting there might be room for businesses to provide conferences during the wintertime.
During the meeting, Town Councilor Chris Warfel posed a similar question, and asked if Walsh and Sosnowski would be willing to work with the Economic Development Council (EDC) to help develop Block Island’s year-round economy.
“We could probably get a representative over here if you provide us with specific issues you want to have addressed,” commented Walsh.
Also, island resident Edie Blane asked Walsh and Sosnowski their thoughts on a proposed bill that would repeal sales tax in Rhode Island.
While Walsh said she would like to see the bill passed, she also wondered where Rhode Island would make up the revenue lost from repealing the sales tax, which she said brings the second highest revenue to the state.
Sosnowski mentioned a test program that will repeal a sales tax on liquor at the end of December. Island resident Rosemarie Ives expressed objection to this tax repeal, and asked what actions Sosnowski and Walsh would suggest to raise revenue for the state.
“What we have to do is look at regulations and laws that are not good for businesses and try to peel that back,” said Sosnowski.
Affordable Housing on Block Island
Island resident Millie McGinnes, who serves on the town’s affordable Housing Board, asked Sosnowski and Walsh to help the island create more options for affordable housing on Block Island. State law requires that 10 percent of available housing be designated as “affordable housing,” and McGinnes noted that Block Island exceeds that goal.
She noted that in Block Island’s zoning ordinances, the income level for someone to be eligible for affordable housing was lowered (so that more people could qualify). She suggested that this level be changed for Block Island at the state level.
“Our cost of living is so much higher, and it’s very difficult to get somebody with that level of income to move here,” she said.
Walsh said there are plans to reform a state affordable housing commission, which will address affordable housing issues throughout Rhode Island. She said that Block Island is one of many towns in Rhode Island facing an issue with affordable housing.
SNAP program on Block Island
Councilor Warfel asked what could be done to provide food stamps through a federal program called the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) to island residents. Currently, there are no stores on island that offer SNAP.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about Block Island,” responded Sosnowski, referring to the misconception that Block Island’s population is mostly wealthy. “Over the years, we’ve had to do a lot of explaining about that.”
Sosnowski suggested coordinating an on-island meeting with representatives from SNAP.
Town Councilor McGarry suggested that Stop and Shop’s PeaPod Program, which delivers groceries by ferry to the island, be asked to provide SNAP. Walsh and Sosnowski took note of this and suggested they’d look into it further.
Programs for the disabled
Island resident Blane asked what could be done to better assist those on Block Island who are disabled.
“If you’re disabled, Block Island is a very hard place to be,” she said, explaining that there are few handicapped parking spaces available on the island. In addition, she noted that the Town Council does not always use microphones during meetings, posing an issue for those who are hard of hearing.
Sosnowski suggested the Town Council meet with the Rhode Island Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (CDHH). She also said the town should work with the state Department of Transportation to solve the parking issue.