By Rob Glidden
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.”
Hanging over the entire discussion is the question of whether the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will approve the town’s current remediation plan for the PCBs. Officials are hoping that the agency will allow the town to avoid dealing with the contaminated “wall vapor barriers” deep inside the walls of the buildings. Officials expect to hear the agency’s decision before the March referendum, which could have major consequences for the project.
“I hope the public will realize we have been thorough,” Dobbins said. “But if the EPA tells us that we need to take down those barriers, we’ll have to back to square one. Hopefully, there will be a solution that allows us to work around that.”
Board of Finance Chairman John Leary said that town infrastructure had been neglected in the past and focusing on it now was a major priority. However, Southington’s ongoing troubles with contaminated buildings and properties make this very difficult.
“We have to maintain our infrastructure,” Leary said. “Renovating roads and schools is part of that. We’re committed to those things but then we get hit with unknown costs like the PCBs at the middle schools and the water pollution issues. This is where the Board of Finance will have a tough time.”
For more on the water pollution issues, see story on page 3.
The Board of Finance will also examine the town budget closely and determine how best to move Southington forward while avoiding a huge financial burden to residents. Leary said the BOF had the advantage of looking at the town’s needs as a whole, although this can make its job daunting.
“The main issue is competing initiatives,” he said. “We know about additional building costs at the middle schools and the Board of Education also wants to expand kindergarten. We have some improvements to the parks that we want to do. The list is long and most of these things are good. But how can we prioritize and balance in an economy like this? That will be a real challenge.”
Economic development is also a key part of Southington’s overall financial health. Planning & Zoning Chairman Michael DelSanto has been pleased with the gains made in certain areas of town, particularly the growing Shop-Rite plaza. He said the commission would continue to update its bylaws, primarily through the Continuous Improvement subcommittee chaired by Commissioner Steve Kalkowski.
“It’s meant to look at our regulations and determine which are outdated and need some tweaking,” DelSanto said. “There’s always something that comes up at those meetings and we all say ‘that’s still a law?” The committee’s done a ton of work over the past year and we will continue to refer more to [Kalkowski].”
West Street also got a touch of good news when it was revealed that the Connecticut Online Computer Center (COCC) plans to occupy the large building that once housed The Hartford. This street has been a major priority for the zoning board over the years, although difficult economic conditions stymied its growth. Still, a subcommittee dedicated to West Street continues to plan for its future.
“It’s good for us to put pen to paper, but putting shovel to dirt is a different story,” DelSanto said.