WALLINGFORD — The two mayoral candidates differ in how they would utilize outside help when dealing with future natural disasters.
In the last two years, there have been three presidentially declared disasters in New Haven County, Fire Chief Peter Struble said this week, prompting the town to enter into a regional disaster mitigation plan. With damaging storms hitting the state more frequently, town officials must examine how to be better prepared, said Town Councilor Jason Zandri, a Democrat opposing Mayor William W. Dickinson this fall.
“We are at a disadvantage here in Wallingford,” Zandri said. “We have continued to do things the same way.”
Dickinson, the Republican who has been mayor since 1984, said a judgment call has to be made when determining whether private contractors need to be brought in to augment municipal services. After last February’s blizzard the town rented a front loader that came with an operator, as well as another front loader that was operated by a town employee. The outside assistance was brought in after the storm, as opposed to work in Southington, where snow removal contractors are secured through bids prior to the winter months. In Southington, up to 15 private contractors were used to clear snow. In Wallingford, it took several days to reopen some roads.
But there’s no need to enter into contracts with outside companies every year, Dickinson said.
“We’re staffed to handle the typical storm,” he said. “It’s really the storms of the century that make it difficult.”
In larger snow storms, private contractors wouldn’t be that helpful anyway, Dickinson said. Typically, he said, their trucks are smaller than those of the Public Works Department, which handles snow removal in Wallingford.
If staff were reduced in the department, “we would have to look for regular private contractor help,” Dickinson said. “At this point, I don’t see that happening.”
Zandri said he believes private contractors can be helpful to the town in emergencies, as long as contracts are handled carefully. In the case of last winter’s blizzard, if prices weren’t outrageous, Zandri would have augmented public works snow removal staff by 50 percent with contractors, he said.
It’s common for prices to skyrocket for snow removal after a major storm, Zandri said. This is the danger of contracting with a company after the fact. The smartest method, Zandri said, would be going out to bid annually for an all-purpose contractor that would be leveraged for a certain amount of hours.
For example, the town could come to terms on a 500- hour contract with a private company, Zandri said. When a large storm hits, the contractor could be brought in to assist public works staff. If the contractor is called into action and the storm isn’t as large as predicted, “we might get some criticism, but in that scenario it’s better safe than sorry,” Zandri said.
Any contract would be for the fiscal year, July 1 to June 30, Zandri said. If the contractor hired still has hours left after the winter, “put them on road work or other jobs in town,” he said.
Dickinson said the arrangement Zandri is suggesting isn’t needed. The town already contracts out 90 percent of its roadwork.
The town has relied on public works for the majority of work unrelated to roads. For example, the initial plan was for work on the Wooding-Caplan parking lot to be put out to bid this spring. But the work on the downtown property was later done by public works to save money, Dickinson said.
In hindsight, “It’s easier to say that I would have gone out to bid,” Zandri said, regarding the Wooding-Caplan lot. Work on the temporary public lot has been delayed. While town officials say it will be usable for this week’s Celebrate Wallingford festival, construction on the Wallace Avenue portion of the project won’t be complete.
All jobs should be at least put out to bid to determine pricing, Zandri said, because “we never completely assess costs.”
If the price is too high, the job can go back to public works, he said.
Dickinson said with uncertainties in the economy, it’s important the town is “maintaining sound services while keeping an eye on expenditures.”