Playground breakdown: Finance board trims $2.5-million from capital budget

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Like a playground seesaw, the back-and-forth contest between First Selectman Tim Herbst and the Board of Finance over the town’s 2016-17 capital improvement plan inevitably tipped in favor of one side Tuesday night when the board approved a little more than $5 million in non-school bonding resolutions.

Amid the $2.5 million in cuts was a $250,000 proposal for a new playground at Indian Ledge Park, which the first selectman deemed “completely unusable” and a “dangerous safety hazard” in an interview with The Times Tuesday morning.

In response to a tabled discussion at a tri-board meeting on Feb. 18, Herbst said that members of the finance board and Town Council were using “arbitrary and shortsighted judgment to modify and remove capital items without due diligence.”

“They need to go out to the park and see it for themselves,” he said. “I climbed on it and almost cut my hand, and that’s why we’ve taken the necessary protective safety measures and have put up guardrails and tape to alert residents that repairs need to be made before it’s used again.

“It’s a dangerous playground right now,” he added. “I’ve had plenty of parents call my office to complain about it, but they really should take it up with the Board of Finance. … They’re the ones who don’t want to spend the money.”

Board of Finance chairwoman Elaine Hammers, who struck the item from the capital plan last week and voted to keep it off the books Tuesday night, agreed — the project was a money issue despite the safety concerns brought up by the first selectman.

“It strikes me as absurd to pay $250,000 for a playground, no matter how well used it may be,” said Hammers, who also led the board to approve $2,665,000 worth of school-related capital projects at the Feb. 18 meeting. “If it’s a safety issue, then we need to shut it down until it’s fixed, but there has to be an alternative to $250,000. …

“Without land value, I’d estimate that the average price of homes in Trumbull are around $250,000 — that’s too high for a playground,” she added. “We can only bond so much; we have to be careful.”

What got in, what got cut

The park project wasn’t the only expense left off the capital list for next year.

While the finance board approved $1.4 million in public works funding, $658,500 in highway vehicles and an ambulance, $568,000 for WPCA projects, $451,200 in repairs to the Trumbull Police Department headquarters, $400,000 in engineering capital needs, $250,000 to restore Beaches Pool, and $190,000 for a new roof at the Trumbull Library, it did slash a proposed $398,000 project to modernize Long Hill Green as well as $197,000 worth of repairs to the senior center.

Hammers said that $500,000 was kept in to fund architecture design work for the new senior-community center.

“We need to be cautious with bonding when it comes to the senior center,” the chairwoman explained. “We know that a new one is coming, so it doesn’t make sense to invest money into fixing the old current building when it will eventually be renovated for another use. …

“The Long Hill Green improvements were not necessary,” she added. “The green is perfectly fine the way it is, and if the developers want to improve it then they’re the ones who should pay for it, not the taxpayers.”

Looking at a capital bonding agenda that was dense, with more than $9 million worth of projects, the finance board was able to bring down the total to $7.6 million by pulling out items such as a proposed $950,000 turf soccer field at Trumbull High School.

“We need more information on turf fields before we go ahead and bond another one for close to $1 million,” said Hammers. “They only last 10 years, and that puts us at investing $100,000 a year, plus interest, and we don’t even know whether or not they’re safe for children, so we’ve decided to put it on hold.”

Death trap

While the artificial field was part of the non-school capital projects, there were a few school-related bonding items that the finance board took funding away from at the Feb. 18 meeting that drew the ire of Town Council Minority Leader Mary Beth Thornton.

She said the town has facilities that need to be overhauled immediately, like the press box and tennis courts at Trumbull High School.

“The press box is a death trap,” she said. “It’s a huge liability for the town.”

The District 2 representative, who has served on the council for 10 years, said the appropriate process at the tri-board meeting was circumvented before a recess was called.

“When we’re dealing with bonding and re-bonding resolutions, the Board of Finance reviews the proposed bonding items before the Town Council’s finance committee gets to look it over; then it goes in front of the whole Town Council for a discussion,” she explained to The Times Tuesday. “At last Thursday’s tri-board meeting, the first item was pushed right through without any comment from members on the Board of Finance or any members on the Town Council’s financial committee. …

“It seem like they wanted to get them through as quick as possible,” she added. “They were heading in one direction, but we were able to convince the leadership on the Board of Finance and the chair of the Town Council to slow it down and look at the items more closely, and after a few recesses, we decided to propose a few modifications to the second bonding proposal and table discussion on the third.”

What about Town Hall?

While the Town Council and Board of Finance squashed their squabble over the weeklong discussion and review process, Herbst maintained his support of a very specific capital improvement item: renovating Town Hall.

However, the $575,000 in construction costs was nixed from the plan at the Feb. 18 meeting before the bonding resolutions were finalized Tuesday night.

“I have four employees who share 200 square feet of space,” the first selectman explained to The Times. “Our assistant finance director sits in a tiny cubicle every day, and doesn’t have her own office.

“We have a tax collector who works in an office without protective glass; just last week there was an incident down there where we had to call the cops because it got so serious,” Herbst added. “There are certain needs that can’t be ignored any longer.”

In particular, he said, he would like to move all the permitting departments into the same wing of the building.

“I think that every town hall should be user-friendly because it’s a place where a lot of residents go and need to be able to navigate with as much ease as possible,” the first selectman explained. “Our permitting departments are all over the building right now, and compared to other town halls, they’re usually in one section and that makes for an easier process for both residents and employees.”

Herbst said the reorganization could help reduce some administrative overhead between the various permitting departments.

“It’s just not efficient the way it’s laid out right now,” he added. “If people can work right next to each other, as opposed to running around the building, then we can get a lot more done day to day.”

Debt service down

With regard to Trumbull’s debt service, the town’s total debt is predicted to be at $109,497,413 by June 30, 2016; however, that number will shrink to a forecast $108,778,846 over the next 365 days.

Looking over those numbers, Herbst said they are further proof that the town needs to make investments on capital projects now as opposed to later.

“If bonding was out of control in Trumbull, then the debt service would be, too, but we're just not seeing that,” he said.

“It’s like owning a home,” the first selectman added. “Every year, you pick a project you want to do to make your home nice. The only difference is we have several projects we need to pick and we can’t wait until next year. We can’t afford to kick the can, and that’s why I want us to deal with it now while interest rates are low. …

“If we don’t make investments into our schools and into our roads on an annual basis, then we are left footing the bill of a $73-million high school renovation, and nobody wants to see that happen again.”

The town’s leader said he doesn’t like to spend money or raise taxes; however, he believes capital improvement needs, like road paving and other infrastructure-related costs, have been ignored for too long.

“I don’t want to run up a bill on the town credit card,” he said. “But when I see a problem, I try to solve it.

“Some of these items wouldn’t be in the plan it they weren’t serious problems,” he added.