Crystal ball; Looking into the new year

By Rob Glidden

Staff Writer

Southington officials are proud of the town’s accomplishments over the last year and hope that 2013 will bring more progress, but a tough economy is expected to bring difficulties.

“There’s a whole slate of items we’re looking at,” said Town Council Chairman John Dobbins. “It’s going to be more difficult to maintain our services than it has in the past because of what’s happening in Hartford and Washington.”

The past twelve months saw many milestones for the town, including the completion of the artificial turf field, the passing of a substantial referendum for road repairs and the opening of the new North Center municipal building.

“It’s a terrific and very busy time with lots of change,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Joseph Erardi. “I’m really pleased with the community partnership that resulted in our new facility. I hope to continue with an emphasis on these partnerships as well as character and citizenship in our schools.”

The early months of a new year represent the start of the annual budget process. Officials of the town’s various boards expect significant challenges, especially since the state will also be putting together a two-year budget.

“The biggest unknown is the state of Connecticut,” said Board of Education Chairman Brian Goralski. “Last year, we were confident we would have the same funding as the year before. Now this is the first year of a new budget and we will have to go through our process with the state funding aspect being unknown.”

The town charter dictates that the budget process ends in May. However, difficult negotiations at the state level often drag that process until late summer or even early autumn, well after the new fiscal year begins on July 1. Southington officials routinely finish their budget while still being uncertain about exactly how much revenue is coming from the state.

“The delays in state budgeting, along with the significant cuts that we expect, will make it a very difficult budget year,” said Town Manager Garry Brumback, who said that despite fiscal troubles, the town would still make efforts to continue modernizing the way residents are served.

“We want to continue to provide the best value in customer service for the residents,” he continued. “In particular, we have to keep an eye on those road repairs and leverage technology to provide more transparency.”

There was a lot of good news for Southington in 2012, but also some more difficult news. In particular, the $85 million middle school projects approved at a 2011 referendum has been beset by several costly problems, including PCB contamination and cost overruns from the architect and project manager.

The Middle Schools Building Committee approved nearly $10 million worth of “value-engineering” reductions to try and balance out these expenses, but the officials still concluded that about $89.7 million would be needed to finish the project. In December, a new referendum for $4.7 million was scheduled for March 19.

“If the Southington community continues to support education, the middle schools project will be a major focus,” Goralski said. “No matter what happens, it will be a priority for the Board of Education.”

One upside to the updated proposal is that it will actually cost Southington taxpayers less, despite the higher overall number. The reason for the savings is that the updated proposal is actually eligible for more state reimbursement than the original plan. The state was prepared to reimburse 52 percent of the $85 million plan, but the proposed square footage was outside the state’s guidelines and cost the town some potential funds. The $89.7 million plan, with its reduced square footage, is eligible for 56 percent reimbursement from the state.

In addition to that, the middle school will be eligible for additional funding from the Open Choice program because the students participating in that program will be of middle-school age when the buildings are completed. This is expected to represent another 2 percent reimbursement. The final impact to Southington taxpayers is expected to be somewhere between $38.5 million and $39.4 million, depending on the exact amount of Open Choice funding the town receives. The original $85 million plan left taxpayers paying for $40 million.

Erardi, who hosted a number of public information sessions to help residents learn about the middle schools project in 2011, intends to do the same for this new referendum.

“My role is to work even harder to get the appropriate word out,” he said. “The ‘more and less’ idea sounds like an oxymoron, but it is accurate. We need to get that message out there to one person at a time.”

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