Search This Blog

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.

Little time to apply, so councilors suspicious

As published in the Record Journal Thursday September 13, 2012

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

WALLINGFORD - At the center of the Town Council’s current debate on rehabbing the parking lot behind Simpson Court is a state grant — town officials said they acted on it quickly once they learned of its availability, but some councilors believe it could have been looked into earlier.

Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. sent a letter to the Town Council last week asking it to allow the town to apply for a $500,000 state grant to repair and upgrade the privately owned parking lot behind businesses on Simpson Court. The application is due Sept. 28, and councilors are slated to vote on pursuing the grant at their Sept. 25 meeting.

The town built the lot and has leased it from the businesses for public parking since 1961 for a nominal fee. A plan to upgrade the lot using $500,000 of town money last year was shot down by voters in a November referendum. Under the new plan, the state funds would cover most of the cost, and Simpson Court commercial property owners would pay $20,000 for the project and be reimbursed half, while Holy Trinity School, which abuts the lot to the west, would pay $10,000 and receive no reimbursement.

The grant in question is part of a newly established Main Street Investment Fund. The fund was created as part of a state legislative business incentive package called the Act Promoting Economic Growth and Job Creation in the State, and was signed into law in late 2011. The fund is expected to provide $5 million in municipal and private business grants in fiscal year 2012-13 and another $5 million in 2013-14. The top amount a grantee can receive is $500,000.

The money is intended to go toward town projects that help improve local commercial centers to attract new businesses and keep the centers attractive to shoppers. Examples of projects include streetscapes, decorative lighting, landscaping and cosmetic and structural building improvements, according to a fact sheet for the program.

“It’s to promote business in town commercial centers — if there are sidewalks that are falling apart or if you have a green that is unmaintained, that is not attractive for businesses to come in and expand,” said Dimple Desai, community development director for the Office of Policy and Management. Desai administers the fund.

This month is the fund’s first deadline for grant applications, Desai said. She said she did not know how many organizations would apply, or whether there would be more than one opportunity to apply in this fiscal year.

Some Wallingford councilors criticized the mayor Tuesday night for mentioning the grant with less than a month to apply, saying the town was purposely creating an urgent deadline situation to push through a pet project.

When asked Tuesday why they chose Simpson Court, town staff said that having little time to apply meant the town could only seek funds for already well-planned and surveyed downtown projects — Simpson Court, they said, was the only parking lot that had all the preliminary work completed.

Councilor Nick Economopoulos, a Democrat, said Wednesday by phone he felt the mayor neglected other possible projects and purposely shortened the deadline with the mindset of, “How can I do this instead to get what I really want done?” He also said that he was rebuffed when he asked the town for proof of when it received information on the grant.

The town’s program planner, Don Roe, who is in charge of writing and obtaining grants for the town, said the first he’d seen of the grant was a press release that came out in June, but he and other municipal officials got details of the grant in one of five workshops OPM held in late July and early August.

Desai and OPM literature both corroborate the time of the initial press release and the grant workshops.

“We waited for the workshops; there was that recognition this was a new initiative from them, that a lot of questions were getting asked, from staff people in communities near and far,” Roe said. He attended an Aug. 3 workshop, he said, and brought the information back to the town, heartened that the grant addressed partnerships between municipalities and private businesses. “I think there’s a clear recognition that downtowns take a collaborative effort — it’s not something that’s exclusively government, and not something that’s exclusively private,” Roe said. The grant application requires that town government leaders officially approve the project prior to submission. And one portion says it has to have local and regional support.

Economopoulos said the project doesn’t have public support, evidenced by voters quashing the initial project in referendum.

Desai said local and regional support means the town has already allocated funds to the project or other phases of the project, or planning and zoning has approved it.

When asked whether having a contentious project such as Wallingford’s with a previous referendum vote against it would hurt the town’s chances, Desai said she couldn’t comment on specific cases.

“We’ll review everything, make sure that everybody complies with what is required with the statutes,” Desai said.

Either way, Roe said he would mention the referendum in the grant proposal, if town staff end up getting the OK from the council to submit it. “I think the interest has been to put together a proposal that is quantitatively different than the past one, but still looks to address what are critical issues for downtown and downtown’s vitality,” Roe said.

As for the town’s chances to get the grant if they apply? Dickinson said he felt they were good.

“The support for a number of different elements are good, it’s a commercial area, it’s also got a school, I think that makes it a bit interesting,” Dickinson said.

Council weighs in on mayoral debate

As published in the Record Journal, Monday September 10, 2012

By Russell Blair
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2225

WALLINGFORD - Even William W. Dickinson Jr.’s most ardent supporters agree that the 29-year mayor can’t serve forever, but whether he’ll be succeeded by another elected mayor or a town manager is a matter of some debate.

Former Town Councilors Michael Brodinsky and Stephen Knight penned columns recently in the Record-Journal for and against, respectively, changing the town’s form of government by introducing a town manager.

“Town managers are specialists,” Brodinsky wrote. “They are all around us. They are doing good jobs. The town manager system is also a proven system of government across the country, too.”

Knight countered Brodinsky’s argument by saying many towns are moving from managers to elected chief executives.

“Rather than dilute authority and diffuse responsibility as does a town manager form of government, many municipalities are investing more of both in a single elected individual so that the government will have a chief executive directly answerable to the electorate,” he wrote. While professional municipal managers are the norm locally — with town managers in Cheshire and Southington and a city manager in Meriden — according to the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, managers oversee just 28 of the state’s 169 towns and cities. A change in Wallingford’s top executive would require a change in charter, a complicated, drawn-out process that was defeated by voters in 2009. “I’m open to exploring a town manager form of government, but it’s easier said than done,” said Democratic Town Councilor John Sullivan.

Sullivan said if Wallingford ever decided to go the town manager route there would be candidates “with a lot of experience in grant writing and managing small and medium municipalities.”

“That person would have some leverage over a local politician who may not be qualified,” he said. “It’s something we should be open to and look at.”

Democratic Councilor Nicholas Economopoulos said he believes a town manager would help town government run more efficiently.

“Anything that lessens the amount of politics involved in running the town I’m for,” he said.

But other officials disagree. Republican Town Councilor John LeTourneau said the strong mayor form of government has worked well since its introduction in the 1960s.

“If it’s not broken, why do we need to fix it?” he said.

Though town managers may have professional training, Le-Tourneau said he believes the skills necessary to govern the town are “more common sense than anything.”

While he supports the current system of government, Le-Tourneau said he’s not opposed to term limits of four years for the mayor and councilors so more time can be spent working for the town rather than campaigning.

Democratic Councilor Jason Zandri said he likes the idea of electing a mayor every two years, but would like to see the salary increased. Dickinson has not received a raise since at least 2002 and earns $73,140. “With what we are paying people, we’re not getting the candidates because the pay isn’t well enough,” Zandri said.

Zandri said, while he disagrees with Dickinson on some issues, a mayoral form of government “gives people more of a say.”