SOUTHBURY, CT – Gov. Ned Lamont admitted he’s gone to the “ramparts” on transportation by trying to find “an honest way to pay for things.”
Lamont made those comments toward the end of a 20-minute address Wednesday at the Waterbury Regional Chamber’s “Legislative and Economic Summit.” Part of that “honest way to pay for things” would come from truck-only tolls and at least two toll gantries would be in Waterbury and one would be in Southbury.
According to draft legislation, one gantry would be on I-84 over the Housatonic River on the Rochambeau Bridge, one at the so-called Mixmaster at the intersection of Routes 84 and 8 in Waterbury, and one on Route 8 south of I-84 in Waterbury.
Waterbury lawmakers, even those who support truck-only tolls, are concerned about the number of gantries in the area.
Rep. Geraldo Reyes, D-Waterbury, said he was on board to toll all vehicles and supports truck-only tolls, but Greater Waterbury can’t have 25% of the 12 toll gantries.
“It’s not a fair representation,” Reyes said.
Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, agreed.
“If you want to have a conversation I said to them let’s start on equal ground,” she said.
She said 25% of the tolls is too much.
But there’s not much time left to negotiate. The House and the Senate have told their members to hold Feb. 18,19, and 20 as possible days for a vote on the measure.
Eric Albert of Albert Bros. Inc. told Lamont that every one of their 16 trucks would hit those three gantries every single day.
“Fair is fair and I don’t think Waterbury is getting a fair shot on that,” Albert said.
A more than 100 year old scrap metal business in Waterbury, Albert said he didn’t think it was fair to punish the Waterbury area with so many gantries. He said it would cost him an additional $100,000 a year to operate his business.
Lamont offered to get Albert a meeting with Department of Transportation Commissioner Joseph Giuletti.
Lamont went on to explain he believes if he can loosen up the 10 to 15 choke points on Connecticut’s highways then he can hopefully speed things up for businesses and improve the economy,.
The business community has been complaining for years about Connecticut transportation infrastructure.
Lamont maintained that the money from the tolls collected at those gantries would be used to fix that specific road or bridge.
“All that money is coming right back into the community,” Lamont said. “It’s not impacting day-to-day drivers. It’s going to improve their lives overtime. I know it’s going to hit the big tractor trailer trucks and most of them are from out-of-state.”Meanwhile, Lamont’s transportation plan isn’t all about highways. The governor said he can’t stand that if you miss a train on the Waterbury rail line there’s not another train for two hours.
Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, said Lamont is confusing the two issues of truck-only tolls and rail.
“Bottom line: rail is not connected in any way shape or form to tolls,” Rebimbas said.
She said there are low-interest federal loans for rail improvements that the administration should be acting on “right now.”
“I don’t think there’s one person in this room that’s not for rail,” Rebimbas said. “So let’s stay focused on what we agree on and let’s get rail done.”
Lamont told reporters after the event that using the tolls and low-interest loans to pay for improvements to the highways will free up money to help access low-interest loans for rail improvements.
“There’s a lot of ways to pay for rail,” Lamont said.
Lamont said speeding up the rail in both directions will open up the Valley and “brings Waterbury right back into the central heart of our economy in this state.”
The real question is whether Lamont has the votes in the Senate or the House to get his proposal to his desk.
Asked if he thought they had the votes, Lamont said “Yeah. I know it.”
Stamford mayor to expand study of school building privatization plan
STAMFORD — Mayor David Martin will fulfill a request from city representatives to broaden an analysis by experts he wants to hire to research a plan that would turn over five public school buildings to a private developer.
Martin said he expects to have the rewritten proposal ready for the Board of Representatives’ March 2 meeting. The expanded version will add $160,000 to the original $250,000 proposal, which would have examined only a public-private partnership for rebuilding aging schools and then managing them.
Last week 29 of the 40 representatives sent Martin a letter asking him to include estimates of what it would cost the city to rebuild and maintain its own schools; an outline of each school’s needs; a review of how surrounding towns do it; a report on public-private partnerships that have failed; and information on whether the city or the developer would carry the construction debt. They also want to help evaluate whatever proposals the city receives.
Representatives have said they want to avoid privatization and need to understand whether their preliminary research — which indicates Stamford pays more for construction and maintenance than peer towns — is accurate.
He will widen the scope of the study, Martin said, but he thinks it will result “in the conclusion that the state gives us so little support that alternative plans to a public-private partnership will be much too costly.”
Cities of similar size get much more school capital funding from the state because the formula depends on tax base, and Stamford’s is large, Martin said.
“The state reimburses about 80 percent of school capital costs to Hartford and Bridgeport,” he said. “Stamford gets 29 percent because we’re supposedly a wealthy town. We get less support on the operating side, too. Yet we play a huge part in funding the state.”
Stamford ranks second, after Greenwich, in amount of state income tax paid. In 2018 Stamford sent nearly $310 million to the Capitol; Greenwich sent more than twice that. Fairfield, at $221 million, followed Stamford.
It’s a reason Martin’s director of administration, Michael Handler, who heads the Stamford Asset Management Group formed to oversee school buildings, came up with the privatization plan. It would give five schools — Toquam, Hart and Roxbury elementary, Cloonan middle, and Westhill high — to a developer to rebuild. The city would then lease the buildings from the developer for 45 to 90 years and reclaim ownership after that.
Toquam would move from Springdale to the South End. Roxbury would be combined into a K-8 campus with Cloonan on West North Street. Hart and Westhill would be rebuilt on their own sites.
Martin said he has hopes for the plan.
Handler has said a private developer can reconstruct and maintain the school buildings for 70 percent less than the city, which representatives have questioned.
Martin said a private company can maintain buildings for less.
“There would still be union members doing maintenance, but in the private sector they operate under different state laws than (the Municipal Employee Relations Act) imposes on municipalities,” Martin said. “Under MERA rules, it’s very hard to change things when the public sector doesn’t do it well.”
Asked whether that means that unionized school custodians and trades workers would be let go, Martin said, “Not necessarily. It would mean we wouldn’t have to deal with some state bureaucratic procedures.”
Stamford has had problems with school buildings for decades, said Martin, who before he became mayor in 2013 served on the Board of Representatives for many years.
About 20 years ago, school officials decided buildings were not being managed properly in-house, so they contracted with a private company, AFB Construction Management. Three years ago the school board refused to renew AFB’s contract and hired a new company, ABM Industries, which the superintendent fired last year.
Maintenance, long inadequate, reached a crisis during the rainy summer of 2018, when water got into buildings and mold grew. That fall, Westover elementary was closed and students were moved to a leased corporate building. Mold then was found in half the district’s 21 schools. Work is ongoing.
Martin said he’s glad representatives “have come to an acceptance that our facilities need a lot of work, and a lot of them should be replaced rather than continuing to patch them.”
But, he said, representatives “make assumptions we don’t know yet, like everybody else is doing it better than us. Coleytown school in Westport, for instance, closed due to issues not unlike our own.”
Mold growth resulting from leaks in the roof and façade of Coleytown Middle School continued for two years before Westport officials decided there was too much structural damage and closed it in September 2018.
“It’s endemic to the way government tends to run,” Martin said. “Mayors and superintendents and school boards and city councils tend to underfund those things that aren’t immediately necessary or visible.”
The plan is momentous, Martin said.
“If expanding the scope of the study helps the Board of Representatives make decisions, which is hard to do for things of this magnitude, then it will be money well spent,” he said. “It may provide us with information that causes us to rethink our plans. I remain open to that.”
The Public Safety Building Vision Committee, in an overabundance of caution, also requested clarification on a deed restriction placed on the property by former owner Honeywell International Inc., which outlined that the town should not consume the property’s groundwater.
The request for further review came after Board of Finance Chairwoman Camille Alberti raised concerns about both the deed and the property's well-water quality during a public comment session, questioning why Honeywell would place such a deed restriction if there were no issues with the water quality and why the town never conducted its own tests before closing on the property in May 2019.
"I'd like to write an open item down that we get a water quality test and get the town's interpretation of the deed restriction," Selectman and Vision Committee Chairman Paul Dagle said later in the meeting. "Let's make sure we cross our t's and dot our i's and get both those things solved."
But various town officials Wednesday, including Town Engineer Bill Scheer and First Selectman Mark Nickerson, are disputing the need to perform well water testing, with Nickerson saying he hopes the Vision Committee will rescind its request.
The committee "made that decision on the spur of the moment based on some public comment that was baseless,” Nickerson said by phone Wednesday.
Nickerson and Scheer estimated that a water test would cost only a couple hundred dollars and the needed samples could be collected by town water employees. But they said additional tests do not need to be performed because Honeywell was required by the Department of Public Health to conduct more than 10 years of quarterly water testing until early 2019, when the building was vacated. The results never yielded unhealthy levels of contaminants, Scheer said.
Scheer and Nickerson also said quarterly water tests will be mandated by DPH once the building is again occupied because the state considers the well a public water system.
And because the town had access to those earlier water test results, as well as an additional environmental study Honeywell conducted in early 2019 certifying there were no issues with the property’s 650-foot-deep well, Nickerson and Scheer said the town never performed its own well study before closing on the property.
The town provided The Day with documentation that Nickerson said was from DPH, as well as Honeywell's environmental study, in early 2019.
Before closing on the property, the town also conducted its own asbestos study, while Building Official Steve Way, former Fire Marshal Chris Taylor and Scheer each inspected the building, going over its systems, including HVAC, as well as the walls and roof, Nickerson said.
Nickerson has not provided The Day documentation detailing those inspections but has provided a copy of the asbestos test.
Nickerson also told The Day the town would not violate the deed restriction placed on the property by using the well, as long as employees working in the building do not drink the water. He added that the town will provide drinking water to employees and that such deed restrictions typically are included in all of Honeywell’s land purchase agreements.
“This is a boiler plate requirement by Honeywell,” Nickerson said. “They said it at our first meeting, before we came even close to a negotiation, ‘By the way, if this deed restriction will be a problem, we might as well stop talking about it now. This is an automatic thing.’”
Nickerson said the Board of Selectmen were briefed on the deed restriction before approving the purchase and added the police building soon will connect to a water line brought down through a proposed affordable-housing development — known as Rocky Neck Village — being planned just north of the police building, which will eliminate the issue entirely.
Meanwhile, the committee is moving forward on its bid package for the renovation work, recently completed by town-contracted architects Silver/Petrucelli + Associates after working closely with the committee for several months to ensure the building is renovated to top standards.
The bid package includes plans to build out the sally port and holding cell area, which is estimated to cost an additional $847,000 on top of the $5 million the committee was allotted to renovate and purchase the building.
The Board of Finance voted last year to decrease the amount the town is allowed to bond out for the project, unanimously approving $5 million — allotting $2.77 million to purchase the building and $2.23 million for renovations. That was below the initial $6 million request based on estimates Nickerson and the task force obtained from experts.
Other factors, such as materials needed to meet fire code compliance and additional infrastructure for IT equipment — a total of approximately $300,000 — also caused estimated building costs to swell above the $5 million limit.
Dagle reiterated last week that the town won’t know the final costs of the project until renovation bids come through, but said the committee has been dedicated to delivering the best quality building to its police force, even if that’s meant going slightly overbudget.
Dagle also said the finance board still needs to approve the additional spending needed for the building, including the potential to build out the sally port and holding cells.