The past year in Southington saw change, rebirth, drama and headaches. The former chair of the Town Council stepped down after receiving a promotion within the police department, in an effort to avoid the appearance of any conflict of interest. The fire chief found himself under an investigation. The Board of Finance briefly went out of compliance with the town charter due to the mill rate. Preparations for an art center are underway, the turf field was installed and municipal departments have moved into a new center at the old North Center School. A long time state legislator retired and a local girl was named Miss Teen USA.
Below are the top stories of 2012.
Sewer Assessment 34
After two months of back and forth, he Town Council reached a final decision on Sewer Assessment 34 and the town spent $475,000 to offset the massive cost burden on the residents involved.
Sewer Assessment 34 refers to three projects which were completed in 2009. The first project was on a section of West Street. The second project was for a small neighborhood on Williamsburg Drive. The third was for a series of small streets, including Annelise Avenue, Skyline Drive, Cedar Drive and Reussner Road.
The three projects involve 72 sewer customers. During public hearings for these projects, residents in the areas were told they would be assessed between $60 and $80 per foot of street frontage on their property, with a one-time lateral charge of $750. The projects were completed, but the property owners were not billed. In the meantime, assessment and lateral fees doubled, meaning that the bills were up to twice as much as the original estimates.
This year saw a change in leadership on the Town Council as Town Council Chairman Edward Pocock, III stepped down from the council and Vice-Chairman John Dobbins assumed his position of leadership in May.
Pocock, a Republican, was a police lieutenant at the time he was elected to the council in 2007. His decision to step down came shortly after his promotion to Captain. Over the years, he recused himself from the council when it made decisions that specifically impacted the police force. During the annual budget deliberations, he would ask the rest of the council to vote on the police department’s funding as a separate item so he could abstain. After the promotion, Pocock felt the only way to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest was to leave the council.
Pocock was named Town Council Chairman after the Republicans won a majority on the council in the 2009 elections. Following this, he introduced a number of new subcommittees to address various local issues and threw his support behind major changes like the hiring of a new town manager and the North Center plan.
Mill rate drama
The town had to wait longer than normal for a new mill rate to be set this year.
The Board of Finance set the new fiscal year’s mill rate at 27.48 during a brief special meeting in June, ending partisan deadlock that briefly brought the board out of compliance with the town charter.
According to the charter, the Board of Finance is required to set a mill rate by the third Monday in May. However, it also specifically states that four affirmative votes are required.
Chairman John Leary was traveling on business during the board’s May 16 meeting (he would later vote in favor of the mill rate), leaving the three remaining Republicans unable to set a new mill rate when the board’s two Democrats were unwilling to support it.
Democrats Sandra Feld and Tony Casale were disappointed with the final budget numbers and said they were representing concerned taxpayers in opposing that budget’s resulting mill rate.
Zeke retires from state legislature
After ten years representing the 81st district in the state legislature, Representative Bruce “Zeke” Zalaski retired earlier this year.
David Zoni, a former Town Councilor and an active community volunteer, will replace Zoni in the legislature, following a win over Republican Cheryl Lounsbury in November.
Zalaski said the recent death of his father led to a desire to spend more time with family.
Zalaski was first elected to represent the district, which is entirely inside Southington, in 2002. An employee at the Associated Spring factory in Bristol, he made the needs of working people a priority while serving in the legislature. Eventually, he was named Chairman of the Labor and Public Employees Committee.
Zalaski threw his support behind multiple increases of the state’s minimum wage, access to health care for those without insurance and a bill that made Connecticut the first state in the nation to make sick leave for employees mandatory.
The artificial turf field at Southington High School opened with a win on Nov. 1, as the girls field hockey team defeated Maloney High School on the brand new facility.
The field’s first moment in the spotlight came after roughly two months of steady construction since the field was approved by town officials earlier this year. Before that, representatives of the local sports teams had advocated for years to replace the grass at the high school. Late last year, a new Turf Committee was formed to explore the issue and ultimately make the final recommendation.
Officials were also pleased that the final cost of the field is expected to come in slightly under-budget. Final details are still being worked out, but a savings between $5,000 and $10,000 is expected.
The Town Council voted unanimously in late August to pay for the construction costs of the impending artificial turf field at Southington High School through bonding, contradicting a recommendation made by the Board of Finance.
Earlier this year, the Council had made a formal motion to bond the approximately $960,000 project. A day later, the Board of Finance proposed an alternative plan to fund the field designed to save the town from various costs associated with bonding. Their plan recommended using $609,642 from the Self-Insurance account (the result of savings) and $310,358 from the town’s contingency fund. The Board of Education was also asked to contribute $40,000, but school officials expressed reluctance about this request.
Although bonding the project will bring interest costs and some fees, the council felt it was ultimately the safer route compared to the other option.
Backers of the turf project are counting on fundraising activities to help the town pay the ongoing costs of the field after it is constructed. These activities would be overseen by an advisory committee. Officials said there would be updated information about this part of the process in the future.
School officials are already fielding offers to use the facility for state playoff games.
North Center opens
Construction work at the new North Center municipal building was still in full swing in August, but several town departments completed the move into the new facility with others joining them the following month.
After a series of delays, the Engineering, Planning, Building and Economic Development departments became the first to migrate from Town Hall to their new home. The wide open offices and hallways were a stark contrast to what the departments had been used to.
Town officials held an official ribbon cutting ceremony in December to commemorate the opening of the building.
The North Center plan involved selling the vacant school to Borghesi Building and Engineering for $1. The company would then renovate the school into a new municipal center and lease it back to the town for eight years. The town would have the option to purchase the building at that time, though it would need to be approved by referendum.
The proposal initially ruffled the feathers of some town politicians, but things seemed to have died down.
The plan allowed the town to vacate both the George Gura Building and the school system’s current headquarters on Beecher Street, which was given back to the town. The future of the Beecher Street property is still being determined by officials.
Arts at the Gura Building
After almost a year of advocacy, Southington Community Cultural Arts (SCCA) was given approval by the Town Council to begin the early stages of their plans for an arts center at the Gura Building in September.
After months of deliberation at the Council level that was often heated, between councilors and audience members alike, a small committee of councilors and SCCA members was convened to work out a compromise. The final plan passed 8-1.
According to a memorandum of understanding read aloud at the meeting, the SCCA was required to perform a feasibility study at their expense within 90 days. This study was completed and the group will have 18 months to raise 80 percent of the estimated costs of renovating the Gura Building once the Council gives its formal approval. If the fundraising does not reach this goal within that time, the agreement will be null and void.
Before being issued a certificate of occupancy for the building, the SCCA will have to document that they have at least $100,000 available to put towards operating costs of the arts center. Then the town will lease the building to the group for 20 years for one dollar each year.
Southington officials are on the verge of a deal with environmental agencies to address phosphorous in the town’s wastewater to an extent that won’t bring about the massive costs they have feared. There is not yet a formal agreement, but councilors remain optimistic.
Concern about this phosphorous issue have been persistent since 2009, when officials learned of the mandate, conceived by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) but administered in Connecticut by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). In response to a previous mandate involving nitrogen, the town spent over $14 million construction a denitrification plant. Depending on the standards enforced by the EPA, the phosphorous treatment had the potential to be even more expensive.
In the early stages of addressing this, the council discussed the matter without knowing for sure what standards would be required. At the time, it was speculated that for about $50,000, the denitrification plant could be modified to treat phosphorous in addition to nitrogen. This would bring the phosphorous levels down to .7 milligrams per liter. However, the EPA is pushing for a stricter standard of .2 milligrams per liter.
The difference between .7 and .2 is substantial, and officials have previously said that a new building would be needed to meet this particular standard. Town Manager Garry Brumback said this outcome would cost the town $20-30 million in capital costs and about $500,000 each year afterward to maintain it.
Based on Brumback’s recommendations, the council voted earlier this year to allow Southington to enter into a coalition with other area towns and hire the services of a lobbyist to help with the ongoing efforts to reduce the impact of an environmental mandate concerning phosphorous in the Quinnipiac River.
The effort appears to have made some strides in the town’s favor since the potential deal on the table would allow the town to go forward with the cheaper .7 standard. The DEEP would issue Southington a permit that would be in effect for five years, and during this time the environmental agencies will research the phosphorous issue further to come to a conclusion on the final standard.
A planned expansion by the Southington YMCA has hit a historic speed bump.
A Planning & Zoning Commission public hearing about the YMCA’s proposed expansion earlier this month drew numerous residents concerned about the fate of a nearby historic house.
The expansion includes additions on two sides of the YMCA’s main building and an increase of about 30 parking spaces.
While preparing for the project, the YMCA purchased numerous adjacent properties on High Street and North Main Street, including the site of the Andrews/Olney House. When news broke that the YMCA planned to demolish the building, several historical organizations objected and the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation successfully filed a court injunction to keep the house from being knocked down. The injunction runs through January.
While discussing the details of the expansion, the YMCA introduced two potential plans. If the YMCA had to build around the Olney House, it would reduce their planned additional parking by 12 spaces.
For the time being, zoning board members have to wait until the court makes a decision on the house’s fate before their conclusion about the matter has any authority.
The commission tabled their decision on the YMCA proposal, although this was not due to the Olney House controversy.
YMCA Executive Director John Myers said there had been progress on the Olney House issue, but that the organization was concerned about the ongoing uncertainty regarding the plans and timing of the project.
Local crowned Miss Teen USA
Connecticut, and Southington in particular, can now lay claim to another national celebrity. In August, at a competition held in the Bahamas, Logan West of Southington was crowned the 2012 Miss Teen USA.
West, who was competing as Miss Connecticut Teen USA, made it through the evening gown, on-stage interview, and swimsuit competitions during the two days of the pageant.
West is also a former Miss Southington’s Outstanding Teen.
Fire Chief investigated
Southington Fire Chief Harold “Buddy” Clark was investigated by the Southington Police Department and was examined internally by town hall officials for a confrontation that occurred with volunteer firefighter Steven Bull.
Neither investigation found Clark guilty of any wrongdoing.
The alleged altercation occurred between Clark and Bull shortly after a fire on Darling Street in June.
According to a police report, Bull stated that Chief Clark was acting unprofessional at the scene of the fire, was using profanity and had grabbed his right wrist, and would not let go, when taking back the firefighters accountability tag, which helps ensure that every firefighter is accounted for following a fire.
Bull then went to the hospital and was diagnosed with a wrist sprain, the report states.
When interviewed by police, Clark said that Bull was acting insubordinate and that the firefighter had grabbed his hand when he reached to remove the accountability tag from his jacket, telling Clark to stop touching him. Clark said he was not touching him and was only reaching for his tag. Bull then said he would give it to him if Clark would let him go, Clark said, according to the report. Clark then took his hand off the tag and ordered Bull to give him the tag, which the firefighter did, the police report said.
Middle Schools Misery
The planned renovations at Kennedy and DePaolo Middle Schools, which were overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2011, were hit with a slew of expensive complications that will require the voters to sign off on additional funding in March 2013.
The middle school building committee was shocked in November when architect Fletcher Thompson and construction manager Newfield predicted that the cost of the overall project would be far greater than the $85 million that was approved by voters at the referendum. Earlier information from the companies suggested that the costs would only be about 2 percent over budget, but now it could be as high as 10 percent. Fletcher Thompson blamed the estimated additional costs on “schematic mistakes.” The initial plan presented for the middle schools had miscalculations involving square footage and did not include firewalls, a required public safety measure.
The committee approved a value-engineering plan for the project which would shave $9.7 million off the final cost of the project. However, it was intended to be used to balance out the anticipated costs of remediating the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) found in both schools. The abatement costs are expected to be between $6 million and $14 million, depending on whether or not the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires the town to deal with the contaminated “wall vapor barriers” deep inside the walls of the buildings.
Despite the committee’s best efforts, it was determined that another $4 million would be needed to finish the project. The Town Council began the process of scheduling a second referendum for the same project, which is unprecedented in Southington’s history. The new referendum is currently planned for March 19, but the town is still awaiting the EPA’s decision on the “vapor barrier” issue. If the agency decrees that Southington must proceed with the more expensive option, officials say the entire middle schools plan will have to be re-evaluated.