By SHERIDAN ROY
The Southington Town Council voted unanimously to approve the $2.9 million purchase of the John Weichsel Municipal Center building, thereby sending the question to referendum.
If taxpayers support the purchase at the referendum, which will be on Tuesday, Nov. 5, the sale will be completed in September 2020 when the building’s eight-year lease is up.
The town has been leasing the building from Borghesi Building and Engineering at $400,000 a year for the past seven years and will have the opportunity to buy it. If the town does not buy the building, it will continue to pay $400,000 each year. The opportunity to buy the building would be available each year.
The Board of Finance recommended the council utilize the undesignated fund balance to purchase the building.
“The proposal before the council which passed the BOF unanimously is to utilize the undesignated fund balance, which has a very healthy reserve, to cash fund this building,” said council chair Chris Palmieri, a Democrat. “That would mean we would use our reserves to fund it rather than having to impact next year’s budget.”
Palmieri said the fund balance is money that taxpayers have already paid. The decision to use the undesignated fund balance and pay cash for the building would “not further the commitment to the taxpayers,” he said.
Other town councilors said buying the building was the right thing to do financially.
“If this does not pass the referendum as was presented, we’re going to spend another $400K-plus per year on leasing it,” said Republican Tom Lombardi. “I think it would be a benefit for voters to vote yes on the referendum this fall.”
Republican Mike Riccio said the decision was a “no-brainer,” and said government needs to start getting creative with spending because it cannot afford not to be.
In a public hearing before the vote, residents discussed the financial decisions of past councils regarding the municipal center building.
One resident said he was skeptical. He said in 2011 the town sold the building to Borghesi for a dollar instead of putting $7 million into renovations. Borghesi then provided a new roof, new heating and air conditioning systems, modern bathrooms, Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility, adding an elevator, fixing water leakage, and more.
“Since then, we’ve paid $400K a year, so about $3.2 million, and now we’re going to pay another $2.9 million to purchase it for a total of $6.1 million,” he said. “What was the cost of the renovations? We don’t know. I just question if this was a wise expenditure from the beginning. We may not have had a good deal.”
Another resident said taxpayers already turned down the purchase twice in two past referendums.
“We’ve had two elections where residents said ‘no’ to a new municipal center,” said one resident. “I think it’s the council’s responsibility to safeguard our property, not give it away for a dollar and certainly not to thumb their noses at the electorate.”
Councilors Palmieri and Riccio said the two failed referendums that residents referred to were for town hall expansions, not for the purchase of the municipal center.