FAIRFIELD – The Board of Selectmen approved a $10.5 million appropriation for construction and remediation of Penfield Pavilion to meet a federal deadline, but some local officials are calling the decision rushed and drawing comparisons to the former Tetreau administration.
The Penfield Pavilion was originally constructed in 2011 and rebuilt in 2017 for $7.3 million under former Democratic First Selectman Michael Tetreau’s administration following damage from Hurricane Sandy. The rebuild was completed despite requests by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to stop construction and comply with federal regulations.
In addition to addressing the outstanding notice of violation lodged by FEMA, the town must remove fill containing PCBs and asbestos from under the pavilion.
In an effort to avoid a 10 percent flood insurance hike for almost 1,800 Fairfield residents, the Board of Selectmen voted at a Monday meeting to appropriate $3 million to raise the height of Penfield Pavilion. The board also appropriated $4 million to remove the contaminated material and $3.5 million for the associated construction costs.
But some questioned the rush to approve the spending, suggesting alternative ways to address the March 31 deadline – the day FEMA officials would alert insurance companies to a downgrade in the agency’s Community Rating System, which gave a 10 percent discount to residents in flood zone hazard areas based on Fairfield compliance with FEMA standards.
“My position is that we don’t have enough [information] to make a decision,” said Democratic Selectwoman Nancy Lefkowitz.
Lefkowitz suggested the board delay the vote, review construction and remediation cost estimates and study the impact of FEMA’s call to raise the pavilion. She suggested using the town’s American Rescue Plan Act funds to offset flood insurance increases for residents in the meantime.
But the remaining board members, First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick and Selectman Thomas Flynn, both Republicans, argued that the town had exhausted its options and needed to avoid the insurance downgrade.
“Not making a decision right now is not an option,” said Flynn.
According to Planning Director Jim Wendt, if FEMA were to move forward with the downgrade, they would not reconsider Fairfield’s rating in the National Flood Insurance Program until construction was complete, which would take 12 to 18 months. After that, the town would need to reapply for the program, requiring a review of town building permits by FEMA.
“I think it’s more likely there would be at least a two-year period over which that discount would no longer apply,” Wendt said.
Kupchick said she was not expecting the March deadline when she spoke to federal officials by phone on Feb. 10, and said the only way to prevent the flood insurance increase was for town bodies to approve the appropriation by the end of the month.
But Lefkowitz said she didn’t want to repeat past mistakes by the Tetreau administration.
“Things were rushed through in the year before an election. I would hate [for] us to make the same mistake twice,” Lefkowitz said. “We’re here, and I think we do have opportunities to slow this process down.”
Lefkowitz also questioned the source of the $10.5 million appropriation – which came from previous budget surpluses that were transferred to the town’s Fill Pile Remediation Account – and referenced confusion at a March 2 Board of Finance meeting.
At a meeting of the Board of Finance, Chief Fiscal Officer Jared Schmitt updated officials on the status of the Fill Pile Remediation Account. He said Fairfield had approximately $15 million in the account – about $6.6 million remaining from an initial $9.8 million in surplus transfers, and $8.4 million from the 2021-22 surplus on remediation,
In addition to Penfield Pavilion, over 30 sites across town require remediation for pollution, according to the March update, and of those sites, the town has completed remediation on more than 20.
But Board of Finance Chair Lori Charlton questioned the almost $3 million spent on remediation from the account,
“I did not think that we authorized an appropriation. I thought we simply authorized a transfer,” Charlton said. “And that $9.8 million – we would need to [authorize] an appropriation in order to spend it. So, I was actually surprised at that.”
Schmitt said that to his recollection, the money was put aside specifically for remediation. Rather than coming back to the board for spending authorizations, he said, the town would create reports to show officials exactly how it was being spent.
Charlton requested a review of the previous transfers, and later reached out to Kupchick’s administration for clarification.
“I just think that we should consult with either bond council or the town attorney to make sure that we just don’t have a legal problem,” Charlton said. “Because the last thing we want to do is have a legal problem when monies are being spent without authorization.”
At the Monday Board of Selectmen meeting, Lefkowitz echoed Charlton’s confusion and called the spending into question.
“To me, it also leads to the question of – I’m not going to say the legitimacy because I don’t know if that’s the case – but it is certainly something to question,” Lefkowitz said.
John Stafstrom, an attorney with Pullman & Comley, said it was clear that the town would need RTM approval to spend the latest $8.4 million surplus transfer, but said the minutes of Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance meetings approving prior transfers were “pretty thin.”
Stafstrom said that the newest motion to approve the $10.5 million from the remediation account would also pass through the Board of Finance and RTM, a process he said would foster transparency.
“I’ve heard a lot of talk about transparency tonight, and I think this is honestly also the most transparent way to deal with the funding for the project,” said Stafstrom.
Kupchick said she appreciated Stafstrom’s explanation and assistance.
“I just want to follow the rules,” Kupchick laughed.
The Board of Selectmen voted to approve appropriation with Kupchick and Flynn in favor, and Lefkowitz opposed. Prior to the vote, Lefkowitz urged the Board of Finance and RTM to take her questions into account before their meetings later this month.
“I hope by my questioning today, even if you’re not in agreement with my position… that you really take into consideration the things that we’ve talked about, the questions I’ve asked and that those are considered,” Lefkowitz said. “This is a decision that’s going to impact the community for decades.”