As published in the Record Journal Wednesday September 26, 2012
By Laurie Rich Salerno
WALLINGFORD — After lengthy and often contentious periods of public comments at a regular meeting Tuesday, town councilors gave the green light for the town to seek a $500,000 state grant for upgrades to the Simpson Court parking lot.
“I’ve never seen so much energy expelled trying to kill a good project for … Wallingford,” Councilor John Le-Tourneau, a Republican, said of statements by opponents of the plan. “This is the front yard of our town, we have to fix it up. If we do nothing, we will have nothing.”
The council voted 6-2 to allow the town to apply for the grant and again for a separate resolution supporting improvements to the lot, with councilors Nicholas Economopoulos and Jason Zandri, both Democrats, casting the “no” votes. Republican Craig Fishbein, another opponent of the project, was absent. The grant would come from the newly created Main Street Investment Fund that’s administered by the Office of Policy and Management. Friday marks the deadline to submit the grant application. There is no guarantee the town would receive the grant. Projected upgrades include new lighting, a new retaining wall, drainage work, paving and other improvements.
Councilors said they’ve considered the proposal carefully since it was first presented at a Sept. 11 council meeting, with some saying they’ve taken time off from work to research the topic.
The vote followed a lengthy public comment period with both supporters and opponents of the project, and the specter of another referendum loomed large.
Last November, residents rejected a plan approved by the Town Council to use $500,000 in town funds to repair and up-grade the same lot, which is owned by Simpson Court property owners but was built by the town and has been leased year by year by the town since 1961 for public parking.
This year’s plan is similar in scope but differs in funding. Money would come from the state grant, and there would be a $25,000 contribution from each of the four Simpson Court property owners and $10,000 from Holy Trinity School. The Simpson Court owners would receive reimbursement for half the cost, but Holy Trinity would not. If the grant is approved by OPM, the lot would be leased by the town for 30 years.
Despite the difference in funding sources, some say the public still opposes the project.
Resident Robert Gross, who, along with Geno Zandri, led the petition drive to call a referendum last year, asked Town Attorney Gerald Farrell Sr. at the meeting to have paperwork for another referendum ready for residents who “are upset by this and want a referendum.” Last year Gross and Zandri collected more than 2,500 signatures from registered Wallingford voters to force the referendum.
Zandri said the community made its message on the project clear last year, and councilors should reject the new plan.
“Think about who you’re representing in this town — this referendum, the parking lot thing, was definitely overturned overwhelmingly. If you do, you’ll vote this thing down,” Zandri said.
Representatives of business development groups such as Wallingford Center Inc. and the town’s Economic Development Commission overwhelmingly supported the plan, along with several residents.
“This is a community resource, it is not a parking lot,” said EDC Chairman Joe Mirra. “When you take into consideration the amount of world headquarters this town has, Choate right down the block … that parking lot is giving a statement every day.”
Resident Shauna Simon-Glidden said that if the town does not try for the money, it will just go to another area.
“The money’s going to go somewhere. This is going to invest in our town,” Simon-Glidden said. “I think it’s really important to look at some of the surrounding areas where people have to pay for parking — which would be a detriment for Wallingford.”
Resident Richard Caplan said he thinks the town should apply for the grant, but use the funds for the town-owned lots — most notably the lots behind businesses farther down Center Street, where there are more business vacancies, rather than North Main Street properties that he said are doing well.
“This is a matter of priorities. The mayor has found those who need it the least to give the most to,” Caplan said, alleging cronyism among councilors and the mayor. “These are million-dollar properties … we’re going to spend half a million dollars when the town’s parking lots are in such crappy shape.”
“I kind of resent some of the statements that you made, Mr. Caplan,” said Council Chairman Robert Parisi, saying the councilors would vote their consciences — not because of any backroom deals or friendships.
Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. said that because the town had already done the planning, design and other preparatory work for the Simpson Court site, it was the only project far enough along to be submitted, considering the grant’s time constraints. Town officials say they heard about the grant in late June, but didn’t have details until an early August workshop held by the state.
“We have something that is already designed and there is no way we can put together our grant applications for other sites (in time),” Dickinson said. Upgrading the other parking lots farther down the hill on Center Street would also likely call for public-private partnerships, as the public lots are small and separated by private lots. “Otherwise we’ll be doing little small areas within private areas.”
Other residents asked what would occur if the town received the grants but had hidden costs, or wasn’t given the full amount. Dickinson said the project would not begin if there was not enough money for it — that he wouldn’t supplement with town funds.
Don Roe, of the town’s Program Planning staff, said he believed there was a contingency fund within the cost estimate.
In other business, the council approved a one-year agreement with Local 1183, representing 135 town clerical staff and employees in the Sewer, Engineering, and Public Works departments. The contract comes with a 1.75 percent pay increase, according to Personnel Director Terence Sullivan.
Councilors also approved a transfer that would allocate $100,000 to the town’s Workers’ Compensation reserve account from excess funds from the last fiscal year’s insurance funds for the town and the Board of Education.