I’d like to begin by thanking the East Lyme Public Safety Building Vision Committee for their work over the past 1 ½ years in coming up with a plan to utilize the $2.2 million dollars remaining from the $5 million appropriation to retrofit the “Honeywell” building for a Public Safety Building. $2.8 million of the appropriation had been used to purchase the building.
The Vision Committee was under immense pressure to balance the demands of the First Selectman to bring the project within his promised budget and the requirements of the public safety personnel to properly outfit the building.
The most recent attempt to develop a solution for a Public Safety Complex began with the formation of a clandestine Task Force in the Summer of 2017. I say clandestine because very few people knew such a Task Force existed. None of the Task Force’s meeting agendas or minutes were posted on the Town website from 2017 through November 2018.
A member from the public questioned the First Selectman in December 2018 about the omitted Task Force meeting minutes from the prior 1 ½ years that surely must have been the basis for the project plans that were presented to the public that very month. It was only after this query that minutes from (just) the December 2018 meetings were posted on the Town website, and they are merely a formality consisting of a few sentences.
During the 2018 budget season, an item for a $6 million Public Safety Complex was entered on the Town’s Capital Plan for the 2018-2019 budget year. The Board of Finance made the decision to defer the project a few years, because we did not want to pile more debt on top of the school debt, to which we had recently committed.
Remember, at this time, we had no idea that a Public Safety Complex plan was underway. However, in that year’s Capital Plan $60,000 was allocated for the replacement of the roof in the building that the Police still occupy today, the “Dominion” building. These funds were approved by the Board of Finance, and the townspeople, but were never spent for its intended purpose.
You can imagine the Board of Finance’s surprise when this Task Force began public presentations of their Public Safety Complex plan in December 2018, just 6 months after the Board of Finance unanimously voted to reassign the project to later years.
The presentation eventually landed in front of the Board of Finance on January 23, 2019. Included in this presentation was a floor plan for retrofitting BOTH the 1st and 2nd floors of the “Honeywell” building for a maximum of $6 million. Assurances were confidently made by the First Selectman and representatives from the Task Force, based, in part, on the expert opinion of Jacunski Architects, whom have extensive experience in the public safety building arena, and whom were hired for our elementary school building projects.
After two Board of Finance motions to fund the project failed, I became deeply concerned that the Police would have to remain in a building that was unsuitable and posed serious health hazards. I thought carefully about the promise that if we approved the appropriation that evening, the Police would be in a new building by the Fall of 2019. Based on the assurances from the First Selectman that he could make a $5 million appropriation work by removing $1 million earmarked for 6 detention cells and a sally port, I made a motion to appropriate a total of $5 million to purchase and renovate the Honeywell building. The Board of Finance unanimously voted in favor of this motion, and the $5 million appropriation was subsequently approved at referendum in February 2019.
I have stated publicly that I regret making that motion: not because I didn’t want to support the project and our public safety personnel, but because I based my decision on assurances, rather than concrete documentation that we requested, but never received.
Purchase of the Honeywell building was completed in May 2019 for $2,775,000 (exclusive of closing costs). A Public Safety Building Vision Committee was then formed to advance the project. The Vision Committee selected the architectural firm Silver/Petrucelli (S/P) who presented an initial project cost of $6.1 million in October 2019. That figure, together with the building purchase price, put the total price of the project at approximately $8.9 million.
This begs the question, how and why did the requirements developed by the Task Force differ from those subsequently developed by Town Personnel and delivered to the Vision Committee?
Ultimately, the Vision Committee’s project was scaled back, and a final number for renovating the Honeywell building “as necessary”, together with the building acquisition costs, totaled nearly $7.2 million.
The additional $2.2 million appropriation request, essentially doubling the original renovation budget, came before the Board of Finance at a special meeting held on 7/20/20. The motion to appropriate these additional funds failed, because a majority was not reached. The final vote was 3-3-0.
I want to clarify my opinion on the referendum issue.
Let’s remember, it was unclear to the First Selectman whether we could have taxpayer participation in the approval process due to an Executive Order issued by Governor Lamont prohibiting in-person Town Meetings.
At a Board of Selectmen meeting on 5/20/20, I requested the Board to “suspend any and all Public Safety Building special appropriation requests unless, and until, there is a plan in place to conduct a safe and fair referendum.” I was insistent that the public have a say in this appropriation should it pass the Board of Finance.
Let me be clear: In no way did I ever state that I would abdicate my responsibility to the taxpayers to properly vet the project, its total cost, and the impact on the taxpayers.
The presentation by the Vision Committee Chair and S/P representatives did not include the information that I requested at the 1/7/20 Vision Committee meeting, where I had specifically requested them to disclose total project costs, regardless of the source of funding, and regardless of the timing of expenses. At the 2/11/20 Vision Committee meeting, I requested responses to a number of additional questions.
Unfortunately, the First Selectman was not present at the February meeting, and upon learning of my request, distributed an email to the Vision Committee members on 2/12/20, and cc’d The Day newspaper reporter who was present at the meeting. The email stated “I came into work early this morning to learn of wild accusations and baseless suggestions made during public comment by the chair of the Board of Finance.” He then instructed the Vision Committee members to “…ignore all inappropriate questions directed to your commission”.
I had completed 98% of my vetting prior to the July 20, 2020 Board of Finance meeting. This process included, in part, attending numerous Vision Committee meetings, where it was stated that certain Public Safety Building project costs were to be withheld from a bonding appropriation request in order to keep the estimate close to the campaign promise. It was further stated that those omitted items could be funded through the Capital Plan or through maintenance funds included in the Town’s Operational Budget. This is not proper and is, at best, misleading.
I deemed it critical to listen to the Vision Committee’s presentation and ask follow-up questions before casting my final vote. Unfortunately, the Chairman of the Vision Committee was unable to answer many of my questions. When I directed some of these questions to the First Selectman, who was present during the entire Zoom meeting, he did not respond. Silence. The Board of Finance asked if there was an alternative plan to discuss. There was not. Therefore, at the end of the nearly 7-hour meeting, I stated that I did not hear anything that evening to convince me to vote in favor of the additional appropriation request.
The decision on how best to proceed is within the jurisdiction of the Board of Selectmen. Many individuals have expressed willingness to be part of the solution. I hope the Board of Selectmen conducts outreach in order to come up with a solution that is amenable to all.
Should a revised plan, or alternative solution, be presented to the Board of Finance, we will once again vet the plan or proposed solution. Should such a plan be approved by the Board of Finance, the public will then have an opportunity to voice an opinion and cast their vote at a Town Meeting (if appropriate post-COVID-19) or at referendum.
As an elected representative to our Town’s Board of Finance, it is my duty to officiate with fiscal prudence and good stewardship of taxpayer monies. My conscience did not allow me to advance an appropriation that I truly believe does not disclose the entire Public Safety Building project costs to the public. Had the entire costs been disclosed to the Board of Finance and public, I would have been likely to advance it to referendum, whether I agreed with the plan, or not.
In conclusion, if the Board of Finance’s 7/20/20 motion to appropriate an additional $2.2 million for the Public Safety Building passed, there would have been a referendum. Because the motion failed, no referendum was required. That is the process, and I stand behind my decision to fulfill my duty to ensure that process was properly in place.
Camille Alberti is the East Lyme Board of Finance Chair