Stonington capital improvement requests

The Stonington Board of Selectmen heard capital improvement budget requests Thursday from town departments and several local agencies. Seated at front were Selectman John Prue, First Selectman Rob Simmons, and Selectwoman Jocelyn Kepple. Catherine Hewitt, The Westerly Sun.

STONINGTON — For more than three hours Thursday, the Board of Selectmen combed through $4.7 million in Capital Improvement Plan requests for the First Selectman’s 2019-20 budget.

Funding for the requests will be decided by the Board of Finance over the next few months before the new town budget is finished.

Heads of each town department submitted requests for equipment and projects to be included in the plan. Heads of several outside agencies also made presentations during the course of the meeting at the Stonington Police Station.

A committee went through each department’s requests and rated them according to priority, A, B, or C. Many items on the list were given no priority ranking because they were not judged as priorities for the coming fiscal year.

 Among the police department’s “A” requests were $160,000 toward the purchase of four new police cars; $20,000 for upgrades in communication equipment; and $34,000 for the replacement of bulletproof vests.

The Public Works Department’s “A” requests included $80,000 for drainage and catch basins, $290,000 for equipment, and $337,000 for major road maintenance.

The department had also requested $50,000 for work on the town’ Americans with Disabilities Act Transition Plan, which Barbara McKrell, director, said would show that the town was working to comply with federal law.

“This is for us to be able to accomplish about 20 ramps a year,” she said. “We have at least $1 million in accessible corrections in our right-of-way and by federal law, we have to at least show that we’re trying to make progress toward addressing the issues that we have.”

Another request was for $100,000 to replace the HVAC system in the Human Services building. One office used for social services was “barely 50 degrees” on Thursday morning, while other offices were maintaining at 68 degrees, Leanne Theodore, director of Human Services, told the board.

“To call clients and tell them to wear extra sweaters, bundle up and put a hat on before coming for their social services appointments is tough for us to swallow at this point,” she said.

Selectman John Prue said he agreed the project was a top priority but said he wasn’t willing to commit $100,000 until the problem was clearly defined. He didn't suggest changing the amount but said he hoped more information would be provided to the Board of Finance before its final deliberation.

The engineering division of the Public Works Department said its “A” requests were $65,000 for work on the South Anguilla Road Bridge and $50,000 for drainage improvements on Washington Street.

The Planning Department submitted 52 project requests for funding. Its sole "A" request was for a $40,000 study of the Pawcatuck Hurricane Barrier, located on Mechanic Street along the west bank of the Pawcatuck River. The barrier consists of two vehicular gates, a pumping station, 1,915 feet of earth-fill dike and 940 feet of concrete wall. The dike and wall are at an elevation of 17 feet.

Jason Vincent, director of planning, said the barriers could be FEMA-certified, which would exempt the properties in the protected area from the floodplain, making flood insurance unnecessary.

If the neighborhood were exempt from floodplain regulations, the properties would also be exempt from FEMA’s substantial improvement requirements, which limit spending for improvements to only 50 percent of the building’s assessed value during the town’s lookback period — one year in Stonington.

Without the expense of flood insurance, small businesses would also be more likely to move into the rehabbed industrial buildings on Mechanic Street, Vincent said.

The board also discussed requests from the Assessor’s Department, General Operations, the Water Pollution Control Authority, Solid Waste, and the Building Department. Outside agencies making budget requests  included the Stonington Ambulance Corps, the Ocean Community YMCA, theh Stonington Free Library, and the Stonington Historical Society.

The board did not discuss the Board of Education’s $4.5 million in Capital Improvement Plan requests because the final decisions are up to the Board of Finance.

At $9.2 million, the combined “spend” from the town government and Board of Education was high when compared with about $3.5 million in most years, Blunt White, member of the Board of Finance and its CIP liaison, told the Board of Selectmen.

The amount would need to be financed through an intermediate debt structure of 5 to 10 years, he said.

Prue questioned whether the town’s short-term expenses were too high.

White said $9.2 million could not be squeezed into the tax rate in one year and the amount would need to be spread out over a number of years.

Prue also said he was concerned that the town was using the sort of budget practices that put Connecticut into debt. “Isn’t that what the state of Connecticut has done for years —  is just buy things they can’t afford because they will pay for them later? Do we want to go down that road?”

He stressed the importance of keeping the discussion about the budget public and transparent. “We need to really tell people where we’re taking the town financially before they vote on the budget,” he said. “We need to show how much we’re encumbering future budgets just to get through this budget.”

White said this budget was no different from other budgets since the town has short- and long-term debt and the task ahead was to find the optimal debt structure.

First Selectman Rob Simmons’ final comment reflected his concern about Senate Bill 431, proposed by Sen. Martin Looney, New Haven, the president pro tempore. Simmons said the bill would impose a statewide property tax and redistribute the money to towns with high tax rates in an effort to equalize rates across the state. The bill would also impose a state motor vehicle property tax that would similarly equalize motor vehicle tax amounts in cities and towns across the state, Simmons said.

“People should also know that the environment in which we’re operating is not congenial. The fiscal prudence that we’ve shown over the years has been undermined by other individuals who wish to take advantage of that," he said. 

Simmons encouraged residents to contact their local legislators, Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, and Rep. Kate Rotella, D-Stonington, to express their thoughts about Looney’s bill.

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