MERIDEN — With the city holding off on plans to build a new banquet hall at Hunter Golf Club this year, city councilors proposed reallocating money earmarked for the banquet project to road paving.
City councilors are expected to soon draft a resolution to move $406,000 in bond revenue from the banquet project to an account for annual road paving. The $406,000 would be added to $500,000 already budgeted for this year’s repaving. The $500,000 includes $93,960 in bond revenue and a $406,000 state LoCIP, or Local Capital Improvement Program, grant.
City Manager Tim Coon said based on a conversation with Public Works Director Howard Weissberg, any additional paving likely wouldn’t take place until spring. The additional money will allow the city to pave another 2.5 miles of road.
Councilor Bruce Fontanella proposed the idea of using money from the abandoned banquet hall project on paving during a City Council Finance Committee meeting this week. Fontanella plans to submit the resolution along with Mayor Kevin Scarpati.
In April, the City Council unanimously voted to authorize bonding $875,000 for the new banquet facility at the city-owned Hunter golf course. The project, however, fell out of favor after councilors did not like the appearance of the building that would have been built under the $875,000 budget. The city is in the process of hiring an architectural firm to design a facility that would cost between $1.3-$1.5 million.
Because construction of a banquet hall wouldn’t occur until after this fiscal year ends on June 30, councilors looked to re-appropriate the banquet hall money.
“We have terrible roads and terrible sidewalks, so if we have some extra money, we should pile that on the road construction so we can catch up,” Fontanella said.
Fontanella’s proposal was made during a discussion of city staff’s decision to move a $406,000 LoCIP grant from the banquet project, which the council approved it for in April, to road paving without council approval.
City Finance Director Michael Lupkas redirected the grant to road paving because, while staff initially believed the grant could be used to construct the new banquet hall, he later determined it was "questionable" whether the state would allow it. To avoid losing grant reimbursement, Lupkas moved the grant to road paving, an acceptable use, and reallocated bonding meant for road paving to the banquet project. The swap had no impact on the city’s bottom line or bonded indebtedness, Lupkas said, adding he moved the grant after receiving permission from City Manager Tim Coon and after consulting with the city’s bond counsel.
In a legal opinion issued this week, Corporation Counsel Michael Quinn said Lupkas was required by City Charter to get the council’s approval to move the grant funding. Quinn recommended rectifying the situation by voting on a new resolution on how to use the LoCIP funds, which are currently sitting in an account for road paving. The resolution discussed by Fontanella would accomplish that, Coon said.
At the Finance Committee meeting this week, Lupkas gave a presentation on the LoCIP grant in which he rebutted recent comments by Scarpati and others, who have criticized Lupkas for not being more transparent about the LoCIP grant transfer. Lupkas contended the transfer was not made unilaterally or in secret and put a slide in his presentation that included snippets of quotes from an April Finance Committee meeting. The quotes included Lupkas telling councilors, “we can internally move our funds around … free up an equivalent amount” and other comments by councilors that loosely referred to a possible transfer of the grant.
Scarpati, who first raised the LoCIP transfer, perceived the presentation as a criticism that he and other elected officials “should have realized” Lupkas would transfer the funds based on the April discussion.
“It’s one thing to say that we’re thinking about doing this, it’s another thing to actually do it without council approval,” Scarpati said.
In an exchange some councilors said did not reflect well on the city, Scarpati responded to Lupkas’ presentation at the meeting by admonishing Lupkas.
“It was not legal, it was not transparent, I will not stand by this,” Scarpati said. “This is not going to be the end of this, there will be further conversations to be had with the city manager ... For us to sit back and do nothing and then allow you to retire in a few months and collect a pension is not OK with me.”
Lupkas said Scarpati’s comments “were wrong and bothered me tremendously.” Scarpati called Lupkas’ presentation “inappropriate” and contended other department heads wouldn’t have been allowed to give a similar presentation by Coon.
Coon said Lupkas gave the LoCIP grant presentation at the request of Scarpati and others.
“Mike added his editorial comments,” Coon said about the presentation, “and the mayor added his editorial comments, so here we are.”