On February 7, 2018, Mark Nickerson, the first selectman of East Lyme delivered a letter to the Board of Selectmen presenting then the new fiscal year budget. His letter contained a cautionary warning describing the difficult budgetary challenges ahead as the state navigated a financial crisis.
To empathize awareness and importance of his message he chose to capitalize selected phrases, “BALANCE IS KEY, ZERO PERCENT INCREASE, & NO NEW PROJECTS…PERIOD” .
He knew hard financial decisions were ahead for East Lyme, as he writes in his letter, that the Board of Selectmen should prepare for eventual loss of some state aid — $7.62 million at the time the letter was written.
Amongst the many fiscal warnings, one small paragraph stands out, inserted into the body of the letter:
Nickerson instructs the board that they MUST (all caps in his letter) invest in the public safety building. He makes a point to recall two recent plans for a new police station had failed to gain public approval. As he closes the paragraph he writes (again in caps) that the board MUST commit to either investing in renovations and expansion or a new building.
Nickerson was quick to publicly declare that the FEMA reimbursement should be used to fund the extra costs of the public safety building project.
Following his public declaration, it should come at no surprise that the Board of Selectmen on Wednesday, August 19th, voted unanimously 5-0 to allocate $1,527,046.72 of the FEMA reimbursement money towards the Public Safety Building project.
Nickerson and the Board of Selectmen are strongly pushing for funding an extra $2.3 million towards the Public Safety building. If you are in agreement, the benefit of using the FEMA money will have less impact to the taxpayers short term by only for finishing the project to its currently proposed specifications.
There is a undeniable need for a better a better police facility, the current Main Street police station was sadly let to fall in disrepair. A larger building, will have larger operations and maintenance costs. Adding a sally port and detention cells may eliminate the need to rent facility space from Waterford. But, it’s not unreasonable to assume that additional staffing and care for detainees will cost the town more money yearly, than negotiating a partnership with regional police departments.
30 months has passed since that letter was written, 18 since the referendum. In that time the town has faced unprecedented challenges. A pandemic that has overwhelmed emergency services, a nationwide call for police reform, racial equality, and a much larger economic crisis that was unimaginable in 2018. Many years passed before the town was reimbursed by FEMA.
Harder storms and harder budgets are on our town’s horizon. This pandemic will have long-term negative economic impacts to state and municipal governments. Future storm repairs, budgets, and capital needs for the town will be difficult to come by. Big changes in quality and services provided by the town will be unavoidable, if the reimbursement money is used to fund the renovation. Future leadership will face very hard and some heartbreaking decisions. The ripple effect will touch every town department, including emergency services and police.
In addition to challenging times, there has also been public scrutiny and controversy surrounding the price of the renovation. The $2.3 million increase to the previous approved budget has triggered community speculation about the transparency of the process and wide disapproval.
The tragedy is, the town owns and maintains a empty building. The longer this debate continues the more money is wasted. Reading Nickerson’s 2018 letter is alarming! It was irresponsible for the first selectman to start the public safety building narrative back then. Instructing the Board of selectman that they must invest and promote the project forward during a statewide financial crisis was unwise.
The first selectman has said many times, do more with less. These words are more important today now that ever. Finishing the public safety building on the original budget and negotiations for regional police partnerships is paramount to the town’s financial health and overall safety.
Before a decision is made, I hope the Board of Finance will take into account all the financial warnings outlined by Nickerson in his 2018 letter. As economic challenges still face this community. The town and the police department have many unmet needs. Sacrifices will have to be made. I don’t envy the Board of Finance, they have a very difficult decision to make. I have faith whatever that decision will be, will be the best for the future for our community.