WALLINGFORD — Among the items on the list of municipal projects that could potentially be funded in part by ARPA funds, two stand out — the new police station and Community Pool.
While the federal pandemic relief funds wouldn't totally pay for either, there may be support on the Town Council to allocate some of the $13.5 million the town has to them. Half of that money is already targeted to go toward grants to small businesses and nonprofits that suffered during the pandemic. The ARPA Application Review Committee, which Monday night began reviewing those applications, will be making recommendations to the council regarding those grants.
Republican Mayor William Dickinson Jr. last week submitted a list of possible municipal projects recommended by department heads that in addition to the police station and pool include water, sewer, electric improvements and purchases by the Public Works and Fire departments.
The list also includes $5 million to go toward the new police station, for which the council last week approved $34.5 million in bonding. If approved, the $5 million would drop that bonding total to $29.5 million.
In addition, the Parks and Recreation Department asked for $8.5 million for Community Pool, a long-planned project that has never come to fruition despite years of planning by the Parks and Recreation Department and Town Council approval.
"No matter how much we slice up the allocation of ARPA money we've made toward municipal projects, there's not going to be enough to make a significant impact on the amount of work that's out there to be done," said council Chairman Vincent Cervoni, a Republican. "I don't have a problem with the ARPA money potentially being earmarked toward those projects, but the last quote for the Community Pool was $8 million or $9 million, maybe more, maybe less. Whatever we have left for ARPA money isn't going to fully fund any town project."
He doesn't have strong feelings about whether to partially fund the projects, Cervoni said.
"I'm not opposed to it. If those projects need to get done there's going to be significant bonding associated with them anyway," he said.
Republican Councilor Craig Fishbein, by contrast, strongly questioned the mayor’s position on both projects.
“The fact of the matter is that many months ago, the Town Council unanimously voted to have the Community Pool put back out to bid, not only for the prior plan of construction, but to obtain quotes as to rehabilitating the current facility,” Fishbein said by email. “Unfortunately, the Mayor has refused to permit town employees to carry out that task. At the same time, the Mayor is proposing that millions of dollars in ARPA funds be used for the new police station.”
Fishbein referenced a project architect who last fall advised making a report referencing the potential presence of PCBs in the future police station “disappear” since there is no requirement to conduct PCB testing absent the use of federal funds.
“Apparently the Mayor and his committee did not share that information with the consultants the town has hired regarding that project as in the course of their recommendation to have the draft PCB report “disappear,” it was expressly stated that because federal funds would not be used for the project, additional PCB testing ‘was not necessary,’” Fishbein said. “One would hope that moving forward that all parts of the equation communicate effectively and fully with regard to this project.”
Councilor Jason Zandri, a Democrat, said he would like to see the ARPA money go toward items of which taxpayers would otherwise have to shoulder the cost.
"I really feel like ARPA funding is an opportunity to hit a lot of these smaller capital projects that we otherwise wouldn't normally bond for," Zandri said. "For example, you often hear at Town Council meetings the mayor saying, we don't bond for $500,000, we don't bond for the smaller numbers. So a lot of times they'll aggregate a bunch of equipment, different departments, maybe a bunch of smaller projects, and they'll do a larger bonding offering.”
Using ARPA money on a project like the new police station doesn't make sense, according to Zandri.
"For the police station, it's an absolute no-brainer to bond for that kind of money," he said. "The police station is a requirement. It"s long-term and it totally fits a bonding appropriation."
He only wishes the project hadn't taken so long, he said.
"I'm kind of disappointed that we are where we are in the fact that the amount of the project climbed so much and we waited to a point in time where all bond rates went up," he said. "I don't want people to think our bond rating dropped — it didn't. Rates for bonding moved upwards, and it is now twice as expensive more or less to borrow then just a couple of years ago."
The proposal for a new Community Pool also is the type of project that fits the purpose of bonding, he said. "The Community Pool is always an optional thing, so there should be some future consideration for long-term bonding as well," he said.
"All of these other smaller things that a lot of the different departments are asking for that would either become a tax element, I would rather pick them off with whatever ARPA funding is remaining for town use, wherever that settles out," he said. "I'd rather say, 'Hey, we've got ARPA funds for it so let's get the truck, let's get the plow, let's get some computer equipment.' I'd rather get all of those things taken care of that we would normally end up bonding, to be able to say this won't be a line item in the budget and therefore we won't be taxing the people on it."
That way, the spending benefits the whole town, he said. "Everybody is going to get the benefit of a plow truck and everybody is going to get the benefit of a fire truck and taxes won't move because we're going to use this funding."
Councilor Christina Tatta said she is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the municipal proposals.
"I need to compare the list to the list of ideas that councilors have come up with," said Tatta, a Republican. "Hopefully we can use it for something that has lasting value for the community, that we can point to and say, 'We suffered through Covid together, but we have this really nice thing to enjoy from some of the Covid money we received.' I think some Parks and Recreation projects would fit nicely into that idea. But again, I need to hear more at this point."
Cervoni said the council will likely not take up the municipal projects until the nonprofit and small business grants are set so it can determine exactly how much money will be left to work with.