EAST LYME — Citing other priorities the money could be used for, the East Lyme Board of Finance did not approve using the full $1.5 million in FEMA reimbursement from Hurricanes Irene and Sandy to help renovate the former Honeywell Office building into a police and public safety complex.
Instead, the board approved appropriating $1.2 million of FEMA funds for the public safety building by a 5-1 vote Wednesday night. The vote came as a compromise as board members pared down the referral from the Board of Selectmen to use about $1.5 million in disaster recovery funds to fill part of a $2.2 million funding gap for the public safety building project.
“Taking the $300,000 out of this and putting it into contingencies might be the prudent thing to do,” First Selectman Mark Nickerson said.
The Board of Selectmen will decide in its meeting next Wednesday whether to approve a bond proposal for the remaining $1 million needed to fund the public safety building project, which Nickerson said the board is likely to approve. The Board of Finance will meet the following day to decide whether to give its approval.
The board had earlier voted 3-3 to reject the Board of Selectman’s original request to use the full amount of FEMA funds towards the public safety building, which has a $2.2 million funding gap between the $7.2 million estimated cost of the project and the $5 million East Lyme voters already approved to bond.
State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, announced in August that FEMA had just given East Lyme two checks totaling $1.73 million to reimburse repairs made to roads and the boardwalk after hurricanes Irene and Sandy in 2011 and 2012. Nickerson said at the time he planned to use the funds for the public safety building project.
The town had already appropriated $203,560.89 of those FEMA funds as part of the $4.4 million Niantic Bay Boardwalk project that was approved in 2014, leaving slightly over $1.5 million available to appropriate.
The East Lyme Public Trust Foundation asked that $50,000 of those funds be given to the trust to pay for ongoing maintenance and repairs to the boardwalk, and board members highlighted other ways the FEMA funds could be used.
Board of Finance member Richard Steel proposed setting aside $125,000 for the East Lyme Police Department to purchase body cameras for its officers, and related equipment. Member Peter DeRosa said he was concerned about a report of COVID-19 expenses by East Lyme Public Schools Superintendent Jeffrey Newton presented earlier in the meeting, and suggested funds could be set aside for some of those costs. Member Camille Alberti said it would be nice to put $200,000 back into the town savings or “rainy day” fund since they pulled $900,000 out of the fund to lower the proposed mill rate earlier this year.
The Board of Finance can reduce the amount of an appropriation referred by the Board of Selectmen, but Nickerson repeatedly warned that the finance board could not appropriate the remaining FEMA funds and said the selectmen may not agree with their priorities.
“For this project, you can reduce it, but you can’t tell the Board of Selectmen where to spend it,” Nickerson said. “We will come back to you with a different appropriation if we deem that’s appropriate. We could spend it somewhere else, or we could send you an appropriation to spend it somewhere else.”
Board member Ann Santoro was the only vote against the smaller appropriation. Santoro said that when the town gets a windfall of money, everyone can find a number of ways to spend it, but they need to prioritize.
“To me, at this point, we have a serious situation with the need to consolidate our services. More importantly, we have a very serious situation with the police in their current facility,” Santoro said. “Being public safety. That is the most pressing need in the town at this moment.”
Board Member Ann Cicchiello proposed splitting the difference between the full $1.5 million appropriation and a lower proposal of $1 million, for an appropriation of $1.2 million. The board voted to approve the compromise.