As published in the Record Journal, Tuesday August 23, 2011
By Robert Cyr
WALLINGFORD - A petition drive seeking to stop the town from spending a half-million dollars on improvements to a privately owned parking lot could harm the town's ability to use the space for municipal parking while still leaving it responsible for maintenance, officials say.
The Town Council recently approved a 30-year agreement with three property owners allowing the town to make repairs as needed to the group lot behind four uptown businesses on Simpson Court and North Main Street in exchange for the lot remaining open for free public parking.
The agreement, written by former Corporation Counsel Adam Mantzaris, updates a three-decade-long version of a year-to-year lease the town has had with varying configurations of property owners since 1961, said Town Attorney Janis Small.
If the petition is successful and the new lease is defeated at referendum, the town and property owners would revert back to the year-to-year lease, leaving the town responsible for maintenance, but without the same guarantees. Any party can back out of the year-to-year agreement at any time.
The council approved the updated lease agreement, but with dissent from two of its members, who said using public money to fix private property was a bad decision. A day later, Robert Gross began a petition drive to overturn the council's decision at referendum. As of Friday, Gross had collected 1,400 signatures, more than half the 2,491 he needs by Sept. 8.
"The whole purpose of getting the lease is so the town could justify making an investment," Small said. "It would be up to the property owners to decide if they want to continue with the status quo."
The council approved spending up to $500,000 on improvements to the lot, including paving and lighting, as part of Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr.'s 2011-12 budget, passed earlier this year. The money would come out of the capital non-recurring fund made up of revenue from the Electric Division.
Small said the lease agreement contains no dollar amounts or spending stipulations and that it simply gives the town the option to make improvements as needed. The capital earmark and the agreement are two separate issues, she said.
"It was drafted in that manner so we wouldn't be in a position where the property owners dictate each and every thing the town did," she said. "There's this idea that the town is committed to spend that amount of money, but there's no such thing."
Councilor Nicholas Economopoulos, a Democrat, voted against the lease and has been helping Gross and others collect signatures around town. He said his decision wasn't made along party lines and that the money could be better spent elsewhere.
"I wanted to be my own person on this one and I feel very strongly about this," he said.
Councilor John Sullivan, also a Democrat, was not present at the council meeting when the vote took place. He said he would have supported the lease, however, because there's no contractual language forcing the town to spend all of the money it has already voted to put aside for lot repairs.
"The jury's out as to how much we're going to put into the property," he said. "The key to this lease is the language that states the town may make improvements. I understand some people feel we are making an improvement on property we don't own. But 30 years is a long time. But if that referendum changes the decision, this could cripple the downtown area."
Like Economopoulos, Town Councilor Craig Fishbein voted against the lease, but worried that a referendum could have negative consequences.
"Let's say there's no lease because the referendum is successful, but it doesn't challenge the expenditure," said Fishbein, a Republican. "Does the referendum address that at all? They're just challenging the lease. We'd still have that money we voted to spend on the lot."
Comptroller James Bowes was not available for comment.
Gross, who has set up an email address for his petition drive at email@example.com, said the money approved for the lot could be reassigned to other projects in town, such as fixing school buildings and the Parks and Recreation Department building.
"In this economy," he said, "it's just too much to spend on private property."