April 24, 2017

Letter to the Editor: (Post Election) Rebuttal to a Rebuttal — Clarifying the Facts on Town Spending

To the Editor:

The increases in Old Lyme Town expenditures summarized in my original letter published in LymeLine.com Nov. 1 are correct, and taken directly from the Board of Finance presentation made at the Old Lyme Annual Town Meeting on the 2015-16 Budget:

  • Increase in General Governance:                6.84%   ($8,736,432 budgeted)
  • Increase in Capital Outlay:                         44.01%   ($1,006,129 budgeted)
  • TOTAL TOWN BUDGET INCREASE:       9.77%   ($9,742,561 budgeted)

In Mr. Bernblum’s “rebuttal” letter published on LymeLine.com Nov. 2, he does not distinguish between the Town of Old Lyme Budget and the Region 18 School District Budget; one is controlled by the Town of Old Lyme and the other by the Region 18 Board of Education.  The 3.67% increase he refers to is the combined impact of both the Town (9.8%) and School (1.5%) increases.  He also does not mention that the 4.9% Mill Rate increase would have been 6.9% had the Board of Finance not taken $600,000 from the Town Surplus that is carried over year-to-year primarily for emergencies and one-time capital expenditures prioritized as part of the Annual Budgeting process.

The fact that the reduction in the Grand List exacerbated the Mill Rate increase speaks to the issue I raise in my letter:  property values have fallen and many people are struggling financially.  The Selectmen’s decision to champion approval of $405,000 in Town funds for the Boathouse Hains Park Improvement Project without prioritizing this non-emergency, non-budgeted cost versus other town needs (e.g.: road repairs) resulted in nearly half of the 9.8% Town budget increase. Hopefully the re-elected Selectmen will be more cognizant of the financial impacts of their decisions moving forward.

Also the claim that the Boathouse Hains Park Improvement Project costs have been reduced to $600,000 is not true.  This estimate is for only one portion of the project; when one includes costs already spent on the withdrawn plan, this number is closer to $660,000.  Total project costs will be much higher once the remaining project costs are added:  for example, costs for renovating the public restrooms now that new Boathouse will not include toilets. 

Because the remaining costs will be significant, and have yet to be defined, there is a question whether the entire $883,000 budget ($478,000 STEAP grant plus $405,000 in Town funds) will be adequate to fund the total project based on the newest Boathouse plan.  Please recall that when originally approved, the Boathouse project was to be fully funded by the STEAP grant, without any Town funds as discussed in my Op-Ed published on LymeLine.com Oct. 26, 2014. 

Sincerely,

Nancy Hutchinson,
Old Lyme.

Author’s Note: Information Sources:  Information on the 2015/16 Town Budget was derived from materials available from Town Hall upon request; information on the Boathouse Hains Park Improvement Project comes from attending nearly all committee meetings this year and reviewing associated materials. 

Editor’s Note: The author was elected as an Alternate to the Old Lyme Zoning Board of Appeals in Tuesday’s election.

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Letter to the Editor: New Old Lyme First Selectwoman Needed in Difficult Economy to Control Spending

To the Editor:

As an independent, I feel it is important to vote on an individual’s record versus their party affiliation, especially in local elections.  My concern with re-electing Bonnie Reemsnyder is that it will result in further financial hardship to hard-working and retired taxpayers, many of whom are the backbone of our community and have helped to make Old Lyme such a wonderful place to live.  While the current Selectmen may mean well, that is not enough; they have been responsible for overseeing three major projects that have each grossly exceeded the scopes and budgets initially approved by Town vote:  the Boathouse/Hains Park Improvement Project, the Sound View Improvement Project, and the exploration of a Local Sewer Treatment option.

As town leaders, instead of challenging these excesses or admitting that the plans put to Town vote were not adequately developed, the Selectmen supported approving additional Town funds or significant changes to project scope, as well as using the Town surplus to cover large unbudgeted cost overruns, and circumventing prioritization of those costs versus other Town needs.  As a result, this year we face a 9.8% increase in Town expenditures, a 4.9% increase in mill rate, and a $600,000 (8.5%) reduction in our Town surplus!  This seems out of touch with the financial realities of many in our community struggling to make ends meet.

We need a First Selectwoman who can balance the desire to implement multiple large projects against the financial realities of our community, and can ensure that any project brought to a Town vote is sufficiently developed that the community can be confident that it will be implemented as promised.   Please consider bringing a new voice to the Old Lyme decision-making process, regardless of your political affiliation.  Balance is the key to working well for the benefit of all.  Cathy Carter supports a fiscally responsible approach to Town projects, and she brings prior governmental experience and a Master degree in Public Administration to ensure the implementation of the necessary checks and balances to support responsible local governance.

Sincerely,

Nancy Hutchinson,
Old Lyme.

Editor’s Note: The author is an Independent candidate for the Zoning Board of Appeals.

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Op-Ed: The Road to Disaster is Paved with Good Intentions — Thoughts on The Boathouse Issue

In 2013 the Old Lyme community was excited to learn that it had been granted a $478,000 Connecticut Small Town Economic Assistance Program (CT STEAP) grant to expand the Boathouse and improve Hains Park.  This grant was made possible by hard-working individuals involved with the District 18 rowing teams and the local Old Lyme Rowing Club (OLRA), which includes rowers from multiple towns in southeast Connecticut.

To oversee the project, the Old Lyme Board of Selectmen established the Boathouse/Hains Park Improvement Committee (BHPIC), with many of the same individuals involved in applying for the STEAP grant.   Initially the $478,000 CT STEAP grant was intended to cover all the costs of the project, so most of the community was happy to let them take the lead.  However, the BHPIC subsequently decided to demolish, rather than renovate, the existing Boathouse, while also removing/reducing other aspects of the project scope (removal of docks and improvement to the public restrooms, and multiple attempts to remove or reduce the size of the replacement basketball court).

These BHPIC decisions had several effects:  nearly doubling the project cost (from $478,000 to almost $900,000); reducing the benefit to the broader Old Lyme community; and potentially putting STEAP grant funds at risk by changing scope without obtaining written agreement from the state.  The BHPIC also proposed the Town of Old Lyme bear the full cost of the budget over-runs, raising the planned cost to Old Lyme taxpayers from $0 to $405,000.

Then, prior to providing the board of finance an opportunity to fully vet the project plans/costs or to prioritize this project versus other potential town expenditures, the Old Lyme Selectmen voted to rapidly push the project through to a Town Meeting to approve the use of $405,000 of the Town’s rainy-day fund to cover this large, unplanned capital expenditure.  The fact that the Town Meeting (Mon, Oct. 6) was scheduled less than one week from first public information session (Wed, Oct 1), and less than one full business day from the second informational session (Sat, Oct. 4) meant that adequate public review and input could not occur.

Prior to the Town Meeting, many community members (including those supportive of improving the boathouse) requested the Selectmen give the community more time for review/input, and to enable key questions/issues to be addressed.  However, the board of selectmen stated that the priority was to allow the BHPIC to begin construction in November, so the project would not impinge on the start of spring rowing season in March.  This rationale did not appear to align with the fiduciary responsibility of the Selectmen to put the best interests of the broader community first, nor did it appear justified since the existing Boathouse is functional (albeit not ideal), and that delaying the project until the following year would not have prevented the rowing teams/clubs from continuing all of their existing programs.   However, the Selectmen rushed forward with the Town vote anyway.

Following the Oct 6 town vote (100-73 in favor of appropriating $405,000 to cover the proposed project cost increase), many in the community asked that time be taken to address the many outstanding questions/issues/risks before going out to bid – after which it may be too late to address them without incurring additional costs/town liabilities.  Some of the issues included:

  • Lack of written agreement with the state on change in scope, to avoid risk of losing STEAP funds.
  • Lack of completed written agreements with District 18 on the transfer of ownership of the Boathouse to the Town of Old Lyme, and for future financial commitments to pay for insurance, operation and maintenance for the new Boathouse.  Without these in place before going to bid, the Town of Old Lyme takes on significant additional risk.
  • Significant code issues have been raised by both the Old Lyme Fire Marshal and Building Official.  Addressing these after the bidding process will result in expensive change orders.
  • Lack of plan reviews and safety assessments by District 18 to get buy-in and address potential issues with the configuration of the Boathouse (particularly bathrooms and locker rooms).  They are to be used by students and maintained by District 18, but do not align with safety guidelines for school construction design prepared by the US Dept. of Education and Dept. of Justice.
  • Last minute efforts to correct the size of the replacement basketball court, and lack of finalization (and broad community input) into a Hains Park Master Plan.  Ideally this should precede finalizing the Boathouse phase, to ensure that all community needs are met and related costs fully understood.
  • Rushing finalization of construction plans/documents, which will not leave adequate time for stakeholder review, and may result in errors that may also lead to costly change orders.

The fact that the Old Lyme Selectmen and BHPIC have initiated the construction bidding process without first adequately addressing these issues is very concerning in itself.  However, after release of the Old Lyme Public Notice Wed, Oct 22, 2014, there may be yet another serious issue:  lack of compliance with state requirements for the contract bidding process.  This must be addressed immediately to avoid potential loss of our CT STEAP grant funding.

Please!  It is time to stop rushing forward recklessly; we need take some time and work together to adequately address the many valid issues/questions raised.  We also need other community members/stakeholders to work with the BHPIC and rowing advocates.  This will be critical to ensuring that the project is most successful, that all of the community needs are met, and that town/state funds are not wasted or lost.

While I am sure everyone involved in the project has acted with good intentions, good intentions are not enough:  “The road to disaster is paved with good intentions.”

Let’s take a step back, and make this a truly inclusive Town project.  Let’s leverage our combined experience and allocated funds to deliver a project that is completed successfully and with the broadest possible community support.

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