The Board of Finance (“BOF”) met for its regular meeting, Wednesday, June 15, via Zoom and was recorded. The meeting was called to order by Chairman Wesley G. Marsh. During public comment, selectman Khris Hall spoke against statements made that public comment should not be made naming individual board members and voiced her opposition to moving public comment policy in such direction. “This is my fifth year in office. I’ve been called a lot of names in five years. … It’s not pleasant but it comes with the territory. As an elected official, you have to expect criticism especially if you have said something that offends others.” She went on to say, “adopting a policy that says you can’t question a statement made by a board member by name goes too far. In short, if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” An agenda item for discussion was a possible change to public comment policy.
First Selectman Pat Del Monaco reported that the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) working group has met for the past year with the Board of Selectmen (BOS) in special meetings, and two public forums were held to discuss the proposed projects with the public – one on zoom and one in person. The BOS obtained an opinion from the Town’s attorneys regarding how to proceed with the funding process. Ms. Del Monaco said, “from the beginning the guidance that we have gotten, and by we, I mean municipalities, is that we should follow our regular process; and in New Fairfield our regular process for grants is that the Board of Selectmen (“BOS”) accepts the grant and expends the funds for eligible uses. So, I asked the attorneys to confirm that would be our process with ARPA.” An opinion was rendered and circulated among BOF members. Ms. Del Monaco pointed out that the attorneys confirmed that the BOS process was correct for accepting a grant, and that it would be up to the discretion of the BOS to choose to take it to a town meeting or a town vote to decide on specific projects.
There was disagreement between Ms. Del Monaco and some BOF members regarding the ARPA funds – whether there is transparency in the funding process and whether the BOF should be involved in oversight of the monies; and several members respectfully disagreed with the attorneys’ written opinion. BOF member Cheryl Reedy questioned the transparency of the public forums held by the BOS, noting that they were poorly attended by the public. “I’m disappointed in the transparency so far,” she said. Ms. Del Monaco took issue with that sentiment noting that both public forums were posted on the website, noticed in the Town Tribune, printed in the newsletter, and mentioned in Ms. Del Monaco’s columns in the Tribune, as well as posted on Facebook and Instagram. “There are only so many ways that we can get that word out to people, and if they’re not paying attention there’s nothing else I can really do,” Ms. Del Monaco said.
At the end, there was no agreement. Though not all BOF members feel the same, some do not believe it should have control or oversight over the funding process. But, one member did urge the BOS to consider exercising discretion and bringing proposed projects to a town meeting for a vote.
Using visuals, Don Kellogg, Permanent Building Committee (“PBC”) Chair, provided an update on the school buildings project. At the high school building, workers are framing out many rooms, electrical and mechanicals are in as well as some sheetrock. Mr. Kellogg reported that the riser steps in the auditorium are being cast and catwalks are visible. Mr. Kellogg said the high school and pool locker room construction is approximately twenty-nine percent complete. They have spent just over $24mil., including construction and other soft costs, have used approximately seven and a half percent of the contingencies, are on budget and on time for a Fall 2023 opening.
The Consolidated Early Learning Academy (“CELA”) referendum approved $29,190,000, which included demolition and abatement of the Consolidated School site, site grading, bus lot and bus office construction estimated at $1,840,000. Mr. Kellogg reported that the work at Meeting House Hill School and CELA is approximately sixty-nine percent complete, seventy-three percent remains of the project’s contingencies, the project is on budget and on time for a Fall 2022 opening, with demolition scheduled for completion by June 2023.
BOF member Mark Beninson voiced concerns over exiting the high school parking lot and asked how the exit will be adjusted, making it safer for buses and walkers. Mr. Kellogg agreed that right now the sight line with the poll is difficult, but construction is not complete, that it is a temporary condition, and the final configuration resolves the sight line issue. Mr. Beninson mentioned the lack of sidewalks as a complaint he hears from the “offices,” to which Mr. Kellogg responded, “The PBC, you know, we’re responsible for getting this project constructed. The issues we speak about have not been brought to us, so until they are brought to us there is nothing we can do. You know we have not been made aware of them.”
Member Dave Coleman then noted he heard comments suggesting issues with the stairways in the high school. Mr. Kellogg said nothing was brought to the PBC regarding issues with stairways and JCJ Architecture’s Christine O’Hare also said she was not aware of any specific issue but that they (architects and contractors) were working hand in hand with the fire marshal.
The BOF and PBC also discussed school safety. Ms. O’Hare indicated that they work with the School Safety Committee and meet on a monthly basis, having done so throughout the design of the entire project, with each meeting focusing on a different element. Ms. O’Hare assured the BOF that the new high school will exceed minimum state and federal safety requirements.
Also, during public comment, John McCartney apologized for his remarks during public comment at the last regular BOF meeting.
The next regular Board of Finance meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, July 20 at 7:30 p.m.
By Michelle L. Santoro