By JEN CARDINES
On Thursday, Feb. 16, Town Council chair Michael Riccio opened with a joke before getting down to business with the State of the Town address. There were no PowerPoint presentations or visual aids. Riccio just stood at the podium and heaped facts on the crowded room at Hawk’s Landing Country Club.
Riccio championed the town’s progress on many accounts, stacking facts and figures on everything from finances, public schools, and town departments to open space, public safety, green energy initiatives, and economic development.
Sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, the State of the Town breakfast offered local politicians, government officials, department heads, agencies, organizations, and members of the public an opportunity to hear the information that lawmakers are using during the current budget process.
Chamber executive director Elizabeth Hyatt said that plans are in the works with the chamber and the Southington library for a mid-session update in the spring. Additionally, they intend to host another “meet the candidates” forum this fall prior to the local elections.
As for the State of the Town event, it wasn’t held last year, but Chamber officials thought it would be beneficial to bring it back.
“Legislative reporting to our members is high on our agenda at the chamber,” said Hyatt. “It’s the reason why we revived our legislative committee and re-created the town address.”
Beginning with finances, the council chair said that the Town Manager’s budget proposal is approximately $50 million, and the Board of Education has submitted a $91.5 million budget proposal, for a grand total of $141.5 million, which is currently under review.
“The Board of Finance has run a balanced budget since fiscal year 2011-12 and now has investment management practices that generate income,” said Riccio.
The town workforce contains over 250 employees, which includes 68 police officers and 30 firefighters. Riccio said great steps have been taken in risk management over the past few years, and those efforts are paying off. Costs have reduced by 77 percent over the past four years, and worker’s compensation claims are running about 50 percent less than towns of similar size.
In January, the Connecticut Interlocal Risk Management Agency (CIRMA) awarded Southington with its Excellence in Risk Management Award for 2017.
The Open Space and Land Acquisition Committee has been active in Southington since 1999 when the town purchased Crescent Lake, jump-starting the initiative.
“Land preservation has been the single most successful category of expenditures supported by our voters time and time again at the polls with numerous referendums,” said Riccio.
Then, Riccio outlined the upcoming challenges that the council is addressing, including an expansion and renovation to the library, which hasn’t been updated since it was built in the 1970s, renovations for two to three elementary schools, a purchase of the town hall annex, and continued town hall upgrades.
“It can’t all be roses,” Riccio said.
Riccio said that these tasks should be no trouble for the public works (engineering and sewer) departments which have completed at least eight major projects this past year. Examples include roof replacements at town hall and the library, bridge replacements, safe route to school sidewalks, rotary drum thickeners and odor control at the water pollution control facility, along with 9.8 miles of reconstructed, overlaid, or chip-sealed roads.
Further, Southington completed fee negotiations with BL Companies for the preliminary design of the linear trail from Lazy Lane to the Southington-Plainville town line. Officials expect to have the trail constructed this summer.
“In addition,” said Riccio, “with the Town of Cheshire meeting us at our border, you will soon be able to ride your bikes on a continuous, protected trail all the way to New Haven.”
Riccio highlighted the town’s investments into green energy, including the electric car charging stations in the municipal center and library parking lots, as well as the solar panel systems in various schools in the district. “Those systems cost the taxpayers nothing,” Riccio said.
The new Quantum Biopower energy facility on DePaolo Drive is one of the first in the country, which highlights the public-private partnerships in energy.
Finally, Riccio closed with a report on Southington’s economic development, which the council chair said has seen nothing but positive improvement over the last year. Well over 100,000 square feet of facilities expanded or added businesses in town, and approximately 1,250 employees were added to just four companies alone.
The influx in industry added to the town’s grand list, which grew by 1.12 percent.
“We will continue to make Southington the best community in which to live, work, and raise a family,” Riccio said in his closing remarks. “We are and will continue to be a community that our state and neighbors look to as a model for fiscal responsibility and planned economic growth.”
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Jen Cardines, email her at JCardines@SouthingtonObserver.com.
Photos by JOHN GORALSKI