EAST LYME — The Board of Finance, with three new members in its first meeting since the November elections, voted in a new chair, voted on a $5.59 million well filtration project, and discussed their involvement in deciding on renovations to convert the former Honeywell office building into a public safety complex.
After being unanimously voted in as board chair, Camille Alberti emphasized her belief that the board’s role should be to ask direct questions and to provide a check on government spending
“It’s really up to this board to do the due diligence for the tax payers and the ratepayers,” Alberti said. “This is an opportunity for us to get questions and answers on the record so that when it goes to the town meeting they have a better understanding of the facts so they can make an informed decision.”
Alberti, a seven-year member of the board, made this comment after the board spent nearly an hour questioning Public Works Director Joseph Bragaw and his staff about a town water department plan to spend an additional $950,000 to improve the water filtration of two large town wells, bringing the total project cost to $5.59 million.
The planned upgrades would help to remove iron and manganese naturally present in the town’s Well 1A (which is located near East Lyme Middle School) by connecting that well to Well 6 (which is near Lille B. Haynes Elementary School) and expanding the Well 6 Water Treatment Plant.
The finance board unanimously approved the additional appropriation, in anticipation of the Board of Selectmen calling for a special town meeting for a public vote on the matter.
Bragaw said that a loan for the project, which has already been approved by the State Department of Public Health, will be financed through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. He explained that although the loan would be repaid through an increase in user rates, rather than by tax revenues, because the water department did not have the ability to borrow on its own, the town would need to guarantee the loan.
A lone Democratic majority on finance
Alberti, the new chair, had unsuccessfully run for first selectman against incumbent Mark Nickerson in November’s election. But in that election, Democrats did win a 4 to 2 majority on the Board of Finance, leaving it the only town board in East Lyme controlled by the Democrats.
Ann Cicchiello, who was one of three Democrats new to the board Wednesday, was voted vice chair by a 4 to 2 party-line vote. The two Republicans on the board had nominated Anne Santoro.
The most prominent issue in November’s campaign was the Honeywell office building and plans to renovate it as a public safety complex for town police and emergency services, for which voters approved spending $5 million at a February referendum. During the campaign, Alberti and fellow Democrats argued that the project was mismanaged.
Nickerson won the election, but the Board of Finance will now have to approve any major additional appropriation for the renovations. Officials on the Public Safety Building Vision Committee tasked with making a recommendation on the project have said they might seek up to an additional $1 million to cover the costs of a sally port and detention cells for the safety complex.
Architects on the project are expected to deliver detailed construction plans by Christmas, according to finance board member Anne Santoro, who also sits on the Public Safety Building Vision Committee.
At Wednesday night’s meeting, Alberti said that the finance board hadn’t been given enough information at meeting in last January on the public safety building when they approved sending the $5 million to referendum.
“It was a marathon five-hour meeting with a lot of questions asked,” Alberti said. “A lot of information didn’t come forward that evening that we felt really would have been required to complete our due diligence.”
Alberti said that she’d like to send more questions to the safety building committee.
“If the Public Safety Building Vision Committee has to come back and ask for an additional appropriation for upgrades for the holding cells or sally port, I would like them to understand what it is that we’ll be looking for in terms of information before they come to us and ask for the money so that we can take a proactive approach and help them or guide them in understanding the type of information that we would need in order to make a decision on an additional appropriation.”
Alberti suggested that board members could send questions through Santoro, and Alberti also said that she plans to attend future meetings of the building committee.
Santoro said that she would welcome more questions from board members but added that building committee has already received from their architect a set of schematics and rough cost estimates. She said that there would be much more detailed cost estimates and plans before the project went out to bid.
“Speaking up about it can’t be harmful,” Santoro said. “But my basic point is that you will have a lot of detail at that more final point, and the vision committee is going to be asking more questions of the architect and making a recommendation to the town as to what to do. That is our ultimate task and we’re getting closer to that, but we still have a lot of work in refining that.”
The Board of Finance’s regular budget work typically begins in March after the selectmen and Board of Education submit their requested budgets. At the end of Wednesday’s meeting the returning board members welcomed the newcomers.
“I’d just like to welcome the three new members to the board,” said returning member John Birmingham. “And it’s going to be a long year. Don’t get discouraged.”
Santoro gave a similar welcome and called for bipartisanship.
“We should see that we can work well together and keep our politics aside,” she said. “I think we have a lot of work to do that doesn’t involve any of these issues, and I look forward to that.”
This story has been corrected to reflect that the “call” for a special meeting will be made, and the date determined, by the East Lyme Board of Selectmen