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Thursday, September 13, 2012

WALLINGFORD - Simpson lot plan: ‘Deja vu,’ some say

As published in the Record Journal Wednesday September 12, 2012

By Laurie Rich Salerno
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2235

WALLINGFORD - Town councilors argued with town staff Tuesday night about a proposal to apply for a state grant to repair the Simpson Court parking lot, with councilors calling the conversation “deja vu.”

“It’s actually a slap in the face to our taxpayers, who resoundingly defeated the last plan,” said Councilor Craig Fishbein, a Republican, referring to a previous Simpson Court lot upgrade proposal using solely town funds that was overturned in a referendum last November.

Councilors are expected to vote on whether to apply for the grant at their next meeting, on Sept. 25. There is no assurance that the town, if it applies, will get the grant.

Tuesday night, the mayor and town staff presented two items related to the Simpson Court lot: Corporation Counsel Janis Small’s opinion that the town is not liable for repairing a deteriorating retaining wall for the lot that abuts Holy Trinity School, and a plan to repair the wall and make other improvements to the lot by applying for a $500,000 state grant.

Town Engineer John Thompson and Small explained why they believe the retaining wall was not built by the town. They said that architectural plans for a 1961 Parking Authority project that created the Simpson Court lot — or rather, extended an existing lot — mention an existing concrete retaining wall. Holy Trinity school officials and others had speculated that the town had built the wall during the construction of the lot.

“Based on examination of these documents, it’s very clear to me that the wall existed in 1960-1961,” Thompson said.

After reading the bid documents from the 1961 project provided by the town and a letter from land surveyor Rosalind Page — commissioned by the school to look at the documents — that said the town built the wall, Councilor John LeTourneau, a Republican, disagreed with that conclusion.

“I think there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done to this,” LeTourneau said, explaining that a number of questions still need answers.

The discussion moved on to the repair project.

Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. presented his plan to have town staff apply for a $500,000 grant from the Main Street Investment Fund grant program, through the state Office of Policy and Management. The grant would pay for repairs to the retaining wall and other improvements to the lot, which is owned by abutting business owners but has been leased to the town annually for public parking since the 1960s.

Sept. 28 is the deadline to apply for the grant. Abutting property owners would be expected to pay $20,000 for repairs to the lot and would be reimbursed $10,000 through the grant money. Holy Trinity School would be asked to pay $10,000 and would not be reimbursed.

“It really means an improvement of the area, making it safer, providing lights, amenities, really an extension of the streetscape program on Center and Main Street,” Dickinson said.

Three councilors — Democrats Jason Zandri and Nick Economopoulos and Fishbein — opposed applying for the grant, saying the new plan was a rehash of the town’s proposal of a year ago.

Fishbein asked Dickinson why the town would choose to use the grant funding for just the Simpson Court property and no other lots, mentioning a March letter from Wallingford Center Inc. that said repairing town-owned parking lots is one of the town’s top priorities for downtown businesses.

Dickinson said that surveys and plans for the Simpson lot were already in place, and that the town would not be able to do the same preliminary work in time to meet the deadline on other parking lots.

“We will not qualify for it trying to suddenly do some work on other areas that have not been surveyed,” Dickinson said. “It takes six months or more to put together a project plan.” Dickinson said the town became aware of the grant in August. Zandri said the town should ask for more money from abutting businesses.

“They get their property completely refurbished. Every other business in this town collects their rent, puts some of this aside for maintenance and upkeep — these businesses don’t have to,” Zandri said.

Councilor Tom Laffin said the council should discuss appropriate fees for the business owners, but said he felt it was important for the town to retain and upgrade the lot.

“It needs to be easier to go out — downtown needs to be easier,” Laffin said.

Ron Hansen, president of the local Masonic Temple, which is one of the surrounding property owners, asked the council whether each business’ property used by the town since 1961 was taxed by the town. Dickinson said it was, but that he did not know at what rate.

Then, Hansen said, “Was it really in fact a free lease?” Hanson supported the town’s bid for a grant.

In other business, the council approved the Board of Education’s contract with its school nurses 6-1 with Economopoulos opposed. The contract runs from July 1, 2012, through June 30, 2015, and gives the nurses a 1.5 percent-plus-increment wage increase the first year, and a 1 percent-plus increment increase for each of the second and third years of the contract.

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