Capital projects ready to move forward after several delays - Top story of 2010

A series of capital projects that were set to move forward were eventually delayed after the economy weakened and the town opted to wait until the town was financially stronger.

The Board of Selectmen intially began discussion on a timeline for the three capital projects. The debate centered around whether to begin the three projects at the same time or stagger them.

If staggered, the projects would have occured in the following order: moving the senior center to Town Hall in January 2011 and the Board of Education's central offices to the old library site at 35 Leroy Ave. in September 2011; renovating facilities at Weed Beach in September 2011; and updating the Darien Police Station at 25 Hecker Ave. in March 2012, according to Republican First Selectman David Campbell.

While the Weed Beach project was originally slated to total $3.6 million, including $2 million in bonding and $1.6 million from the general fund, Campbell said he didn't want to use money from the general fund.

"Weed Beach will go forward with $2 million. This would allow for the new bathhouse. Murry [Stegelmann] and Martha [Banks] do not want to se money from the general fund, as was proposed before the recession, on Weed Beach. I agree, if the Park and Rec Commission wants more money, they must ask the RTM for additional bonding," Campbell wrote in an e-mail to Town officials.

The building permit for the police building, approved in April 2009, quoted the price of that project at $14.7 million, and a recent senior center feasibility report, compiled by Beinfield Architects, listed the price for the senior center shuffle at $3.4 million.

The three Republican Board members said they would like to see the projects staggered as outlined by Campbell, in an effort to minimize the burden to the taxpayers of Darien.

"By [staggering the projects] we wouldn't need to bond $24 million ... all at once. The most our bonding level would get to with the staggered start is $83 million. If we started everything together, the bonding would get around $97 million," Campbell said.

"There's no better time than right now to build. The debt services rates are the lowest they've been historically. They're down around 3 percent. Building costs have been down considerably in the last couple years," he said.

"If we did the police station and everything first, you're bonding $14 million more upfront than you would a year-and-a-half from now. The reason I wanted to put it off for a year-and-a-half is because we are decreasing the debt level by $6 million to $7 million a year. That's how we even out the cost to the taxpayers," Campbell said Tuesday morning.

Republican Selectman Jerry Nielsen said he agrees that the projects need to be staggered, though he is not yet certain which order would be best.

Campbell said in his mind, the priority level is tied solely to the all-mighty dollar.

"There's no priority based on the constituent. The priority is based on what the tax consequence is to the taxpayer. That's the priority. You can call it Box 1, Box 2, Box 3 and Box 4. Don't even say what's in those boxes," he said.

Sullivan did not state at the meeting whether she supported a staggered start as opposed to an all-at-once option.

"The purpose of this meeting is to talk about the possibilities of how we would stagger the projects," she said.

"From my perspective, having already voted once on doing the police station and once on Weed Beach ... I think that they should not be the things that we hold, and I would have liked to have seen [an option] where the staggered project starts didn't have the police department as being last, but they were up front," she said.

"My biggest concern is not just the capital [costs], but it's the operating expenses because our operating budgets have really been stressed over the last two years," she said.

The Board did not reach a decision as to how the projects would be scheduled during the meeting.

After the board was unable to agree on how the projects should move forward, the decision was deferred to a later meeting where Campbell discussed why the town should move forward.

"The ones that are ready to go are the priorities," said Campbell. "They've been held off for a long time now. If we wait too long we're going to have to go back before the RTM to get re-approved for the bonds."

The two projects that were labeled "ready to go" at the meeting are the police department renovation and the Weed Beach Improvement Plan.

However, an agreement was still unable to be reached as to when the shuffle should begin and which projects should go first.

In three separate votes of 3-2, the board voted to refer reports regarding improvements at 2 Renshaw Road and 35 Leroy Ave., as well as creating a building committee to oversee the renovations at 2 Renshaw Road into the Mather Center, to P&Z.

Democratic Selectman Callie Sullivan expressed similar concerns that not all of the questions had been answered for the work at 2 Renshaw Road and that was why she would not vote in favor of moving the report to P&Z.

"If we could work more closely to answer the questions -- that's how you build consensus," Sullivan said. "I can't support this plan." Sullivan pointed out that the reason she brought up her own proposal for a senior center was because she still had questions about the project.

"The only reason I brought my proposal to light was because not all of my questions were answered," Sullivan said.

Republican Selectman Gerald Nielsen felt enough discussion had taken place regarding the projects.

"It's time to move this baby forward," Nielsen said. "It's time to move on."

Bayne, who also opposed referring the reports to P&Z, felt there were too many fundamental questions still to answer and that was why he could not support the project.

Bayne also refused to support the plans for 35 Leroy Ave. because the land was originally zoned for housing and he felt it should be used for housing.

The board did agree that a potential transfer of $275,000 could be tabled for a later date until more information was available for how the money would be used.

Both Bayne and Sullivan were concerned that there weren't any proposals or contracts to dictate how the money was spent.

The board voted to approve additional bonding of $1 million for Weed Beach and to begin breaking ground on a new police station in March, 2011.