2018: Southington’s year in review

This year in Southington, several anniversaries were celebrated, records were broken, new town committees were formed, school groups took home victories, and officials championed stronger communication and listening skills. Some businesses announced closure, peaceful protests were held, some elections were lost and at least a couple dozen heated debates ensued.

It was another year full of ups and downs and everything in between. Here is a look back at the year:

January to June

Government

Budget—One of the biggest issues local government had to address in 2018 was the budget. A budget cycle that normally lasts 12 months stretched to almost 20 months as the BOE, Town Council, Board of Finance and the Town Manager struggled to put forth a balanced budget with the growing instability at the state level.

To make matters worse, the town was forced to deal with two budgets at once as the town was hit with mid-year “holdbacks” from the governor that forced a hole in the current budget. The governor then slapped the town with a lawsuit because, with the holdbacks, the town was in violation of a state department of education requirement (MBR).

Luckily, state officials saw this and backed the town up. The lawsuit did not come to fruition. The town was relieved of the fines, but the upcoming budget still had holes from a lack of state spending.

Just a few days before the Town Council was to vote on the budget and a mill rate increase that the state swept in with monies for the town, allowing the Town Manager to rework his numbers and provide a 0.01 percent increase to the budget along with a $1 million contingency.

The grand list topped over $4 billion in taxable property, allowing the manager and the BOF to offer a zero-percent mill rate increase.

While the budget consumed much of the elected officials’ meetings early in the year, additional business was conducted.

Apple Harvest finances—In January, the council announced a new system would be implemented for reporting financial expenditures and revenues for the town’s Apple Harvest Festival. The new system would be consistent year-to-year and be produced by the town’s finance department. The new system was put in place for the most recent festival.

Committee of Chairs—A committee from the past was brought back. In January, Town Council chair Chris Palmieri (D) announced the Committee of Chairs would return. It brings all of the chairpersons together in one room to provide updates and hold discussions. It includes the BOF, BOE, Town Council, and Planning and Zoning chairs along with the Town Manager and Superintendent of Schools. The committee meets monthly.

Town Committee—While communication seemed to be improving with elected board members, there remained some challenges. One such challenge shone through back in January, just a couple months after municipal elections were held. The Republican Town Committee had a shake-up when a number of members, including some elected officials, resigned as members of the group. There was controversy over the new slate of officers being voted on. Some members disagreed with the choices made, and ultimately left the committee.

Though the town committee had some challenges, it also had some successes. A strong slate of candidates was put forth for the 2018 state elections, including long-time Southington representatives Joe Markley, Rob Sampson and John Fusco. They also endorsed some new names who live in neighboring towns—Gale Mastrofrancesco, Diane Pagano and Steve Baleshiski. Baleshiski ended up leaving the race due to controversial social media content, and the town committee quickly replaced him with Mike Gagliardi.

The Democratic town committee also endorsed a number of candidates, both familiar and new. Joe Aresimowicz, Dave Borzellino, Ryan Rogers, Liz Linehan and Vickie Orsini Nardello were all endorsed early in the year.

Medical marijuana—The PZC began discussing, and continues to do so, medical marijuana. It garnered lots of attention from residents, both in favor and highly against. Early in the year, the board saw two applications for medical marijuana dispensaries. The first application was denied based on several factors including proximity to school buildings and residential areas.  The second application was approved, but did not receive licensure from the state of Connecticut, so it will not open at this time.

Schools

Music—One of the high school’s pride and joys is its music department and its competitive marching band. At one point in the struggle to balance the budget, there was discussion of eliminating elementary music programs. This caused scores of people to come out to the BOE meeting at which they were expected to vote. Music teachers, band students, parents and band backers protested and pleaded their case, asking that the board find some other place to find the money. The board listened, and music education was left alone.

Some of the lessons that students learned from their elementary music education were flaunted in school musicals. The high school performed “Les Miserables,” and the Kennedy and DePaolo Middle School theater program took on “Rock of Ages.”

In April, SPS received official recognition as one of the Best Communities for Music Educcation (BCME) in the nation by the National Association of Music Merchants foundation in collaboration with the Music Research Institute at the University of Kansas.

The Blue Knights marching band competed in the fall season and had successes at every competition. That will be covered in the year-in-review part two next week, but deserves a mention in this topic of music in the schools.

Science—SPS takes their science education seriously, and makes it fun and exciting for students. Like their pride in music education, Southington takes great pride in their SHS FIRST Robotics Team 195 CyberKnights. The team is composed of young robotic engineers who build a robot that competes against other teams’ robots in worldwide competitions. Out of hundreds of teams, the SHS CyberKnights took fourth place in the world championships in April.

Elementary and middle school students at SPS also get involved in science programs early on. A group of Kennedy Middle School students competed in the Connecticut Middle School Science Bowl, and in May, three fourth graders were selected as top inventors at the state-wide invention convention, and a team of four sixth graders earned first place at the state-wide E-Cybermission competition.

Alta at the Pyne—Southington’s alternative high school program graduated 15 seniors at the end of the school year. In May, Alta students celebrated the Connecticut Association of Alterntive Schools and programs (CAASP) 11th annual STARS (success, teamwork, achievement, recognition, self-esteem) event, giving students the opportunity to showcase their passions and talents.

Peaceful protest—Following the tragic events that occurred in Parkland, Fla. Where 17 students and teachers were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, hundreds of SHS students partook in a nation-wide peaceful protest against gun violence. The local protest had some controversy with a standoff between school officials and the press.

End of the year—SHS celebrated the graduating class of 2018 as 531 seniors earned their high school diplomas. Lydia Yu was valedictorian, Chloe Becquey was salutatorian and Evan Bender was the essayist. Southington student at Mercy High School, Jennifer Magnoli, was named valedictorian of her graduating class.

Town officials recognized 18 graduating seniors who had enlisted in the military.

Kari Peschel-Luise was named teacher of the year for the 2017-18 school year. Anne Lippincott was named pareducator of the year.

Town Events and Happenings

All across the town in 2018, several celebrations, new programs, new buildings and more were introduced.

The Southington Historical Society upped the ante and began offering free appraisals and tours on Saturdays. Later in the year, the director said the appraisals had been popular and that the museum was seeing more visitors than before.

The new and improved, state of the art Calendar House was opened to members in early march. A ribbon cutting was held later in the year once the old building was razed and paved into a parking lot.

The Southington Town-wide Effort to Promote Success (STEPS) youth council championed a campaign to spread awareness for proper disposal of unwanted prescription medications, pointing people to a prescription drop-box at the Police Department.

The Southington Library organized its 2018 Southington Reads event, featuring special guest and six-time New York Times bestseller, Wally Lamb.

In May, the Barnes Museum had a visit from the Eastern Connecticut Paranormal Society, who investigated the museum and determined it is home to a number of spirits who continue to roam the parameters long after death.

In April, the Southington-Cheshire YMCA received a $3 million grant to dredge the pond at Camp Sloper, ensuring the long-term health of the pond. The YMCA also celebrated its 90th birthday in May.

Southington Relay for Life celebrated its 20th anniversary in June.

Two areas of town were dedicated to fallen first responders: the West Street bridge near Executive Boulevard was named after detective Bruce Boislard, and Meriden Avenue was dedicated to Southington’s fallen firefighters.

Community Service

If there’s one thing true of Southington residents, it’s that they help their neighbors in times of need.

Starting off early, in January SCS reported having delivered thanksgiving food baskets to 1,364 individuals. Christmas gifts were donated to 1,413 individuals, and over 532,000 meals had been served in 2017.

In January, 175 people “took the plunge” at the YMCA Camp Sloper, jumping into 48 degree water to raise more than $45,000 to help pay for youth to attend summer camp.

The Apples & Arts project was introduced, beautifying Southington with hand-painted apple sculptures, and raising  money for Bread for Life, SCS, Southington Community Cultural Arts and the United Way of Southington.

July to December

Government

State elections: The Nov. 6 mid-term state elections were unique, not only in town or in the state, but across the nation. Across all the news channels, reporters heard from officials that this was a big year for politics as voters continue to get involved in the political conversation. Numbers showed a great increase in voter turnout from previous years, along with number of registered voters. The same trend was seen during the August primaries.

The pressure of the election was certainly noted by Southington politicians, as the town contains four House of Representative districts and one senatorial district. The town also saw one of its residents take a leap for lieutenant governor. Some candidates’ names and ideals were familiar to residents, while others took a shot at something new to them and introduced themselves for the first time.

Things got heated in the race for the 30th district, both leading up to the election, and after. Incumbent Joe Aresimowicz (D) faced off against Republican challenger Mike Gagliardi on the ballots, but that wasn’t the case up until early October. A different Republican candidate sought the seat: Steve Baleshiski. The original challenger was a young man with some particularly strong views. He had a personal Facebook page, along with a “political views” page, where he often posted controversial comments. Right before the election, voters caught wind of the posts and charged that he was unfit for the seat. Baleshiski lost the support of both the Southington and Berlin Republican Town Committees, and dropped out of the race. In just a few days, Gagliardi entered the race. Come election night, the two were just 37 votes apart, with Aresimowicz in the lead. A recount was ordered, and put the two even further apart. They thought it was over, but state officials charged that the early voter ballots that were sent out still had Baleshiski’s name on them, and those votes were thrown out after the candidate dropped out. A looming lawsuit hung over their heads. Ultimately, Gagliardi conceded, and the lawsuit never went forward.

Hospitals: Over the summer, the Community Committee to Save Bradley gathered for a protest outside of the Hartford Healthcare Medical Center on Queen Street with signs reading “Beep 4 Bradley” and “Save our Hospital” in support of the Hospital of Central Connecticut at Bradley Memorial Campus. HCC officials say healthcare needs are always evolving, and the Bradley campus is showing its age. There was talk of what to do with the Bradley hospital—would they tear it down completely, renovate it, rebuild a new building on the same land or something else entirely? By the close of the year, there is still question of what will happen. The Town Council passed a resolution in a tight vote supporting a plan to continue providing medical services at the hospital that is “at a central location that is conducive to the overall accessibility and infrastructure of our community.”

Tilcon: The Tilcon expansion project was shut down. The Tilcon quarry sought to expand through the Shuttlemeadow Reservoir watershed, which is protected by a state law forbidding any commercial development. The project was supported by the New Britain mayor, Erin Stewart (R), but due to criticism, environmental concern and lack of support from locals, the mayor sent a letter to the New Britain Water Planning Council withdrawing the city’s proposal of consideration. Tilcon followed suit and withdrew its proposal, but said it would be open to any conversation with government officials in the future regarding the project’s continuation.

Cleanup: State and federal agencies applauded two Superfund site cleanups, including the deletion of the Old Southington landfill Superfund site from the National Priorities List, and significant improvements at the Solvents Recovery Service of New England.

New fire chief: After over a year of searching, the Southington Fire Department selected a new fire chief, Richard Butler, of Annapolis, Md. Butler came with extensive experience. He moved his family to town and got to work quickly.

Ordinance: The council passed an ordinance regarding excessive emergency service responses to repeat offenders in a split vote. Once a property owner reaches 25 emergency service calls in one year, a fine for excessive use will be implemented.

Council Chats: Town Councilors began offering “Council Chats,” an informal meeting which invites residents to join and engage in conversation with councilors about local issues.

 

Schools

Farewell: Thalberg Elementary School rallied around beloved former principal, Megan Bennett, at the end of the school year with “Megan Bennett Day,” a school-wide ceremony to say goodbye.

Vision: Earlier in the year, school administration and BOE adopted the “Vision of a Graduate.” Superintendent Tim Connellan began implementing it right away for the 2018-19 school year.

BKMB: The SHS Blue Knights Marching Band had another successful season. They began practicing over the summer before students go back to school. They opened the season with an open rehearsal, showcasing the 2018 season show, “Destiny: West,” a story about traveling from the east coast, over the Mississippi River, through the Rocky Mountains and arriving on the west coast. The band’s biggest fundraiser of the year, Music of the Knight, was a success. At the end of the season, BKMB placed second at their national competition at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.

CAPSS: Two SHS students, Abhiram Bhamidipati and Aliya Sarris, were selected for the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS) Student Recognition award for leadership service to the school, academic prowess relative to the ability and service to others in the community.

Retirees: The BOE honored all retiring teachers and administrators at their meeting in October.

Superintendent: Tim Connellan was honored with high marks from the BOE in the annual evaluation of the superintendent of schools, citing calm, focused and professional practice.

Parental involvement: One Southington parent, Carrie Foligno, was recognized at the state capitol by the State Education Resource Center and the Connecticut Commission on Women, Children and Seniors for her parental involvement in Southington schools, particularly with students in special education.

Town Events

Apple Harvest Festival: Southington went all-out for the 50th anniversary AHF. It captured the old and the new, bringing back longstanding traditions and introducing new and exciting details. They even booked American rock band Bowling for Soup to play on the mainstage on the first weekend. The Champagne family was honored as the parade grand marshals, including husband and wife Jim and Rosemary and their daughter Tracey Bentz. SHS senior Bianca Spataro was named AHF Queen. The parade showcased 40 hand-painted apples form the Apples and Arts project, the Champagne family, past AHF Queens and grand marshals, tons of local organizations and politicos and more. The selected Granny Apple contest winner was Susan Buckler, the daughter of George Kroher who was the Southington Chamber of Commerce president during the very first AHF. She was nominated by granddaughter Kylie Savage.

Library/Barnes Museum: The community said goodbye to retiring director Sue Smayda, and welcomed Kristi Sadowski. In July, the Barnes Museum hosted its annual Taste of Southington, and was undeterred by heavy rain.

Festival: The 14th annual Italian-American festival was held on July 27 and featured a fireworks display and an entertainer from Naples, Italy.

Veterans: Five Korean veterans in Southington were honored with a medal of peace from the Ambassador of South Korea. Southington veteran Carl Robert Jacobs was awarded several medals for service in the Korean Conflict. He was the only one who came out alive out of a group of 30 men who were attacked. It was announced the Southington Wall of Honor would honor the locals who joined combat in WWII and were killed in action.

College: Lincoln College of New England announced it would be closing following the completion of the fall semester after failing to meet accreditation requirements. The sudden announcement caused distress for many students.

Senior Center: The brand new Calendar House held a ribbon cutting ceremony in September.

Celebration: The annual Leading Ladies celebration honored Hope Roecker.

Police: Sgt. Jeffrey Ward, 16-year veteran of the Southington Police Department, was selected for the 2018 Officer Paul Buchanan memorial peer support award.

Christmas: White Christmas in the Community was a success. This year, the event added live ice sculptures, Bradley Mountain Farm goats, wreath and ornament making stations, scavenger hunts and additional lighted sculptures along the rail trail.

YMCA: the local YMCA named mark Pooler as the new CEO following John Myers’ retirement after over 30 years of service.

Community Service

Flag: A new flag pole was installed at the town’s 9/11 memorial, made possible by donations from the American Legion and KBE Building Co.

Food pantry: Southington schools and families came to the rescue for the Southington Community Services food pantry when it neared dangerously low volumes. Superintendent Tim Connellan sent a communication to SPS families to inform them, and SCS director Janet Mellon soon reported never-before-seen numbers of donations in just a few days.

Garden: A new pollinator garden was unveiled on the rail-trail and donated to the town, designed and built by students from Kelley Elementary School’s Art for a Cause club, made possible by donations from several local businesses.

Soup: Bread for Life held its annual Soup Nite fundraiser, where local restaurants donated soup, breads and desserts that Southington students dished out to hungry locals.

Holidays: Numerous holiday donation drives were announced, by both businesses and individuals, to benefit a variety of organizations including BFL, SCS and Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.

Rotary: The Rotary Club of Southington rose over $115,000 for Southington food charities.

Wow. That was a lot. We can’t wait to see what 2019 brings…

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