Town Hall Building Committee Addresses Public Concerns
NEWINGTON - A June 24 public hearing regarding a proposal to renovate the existing town hall building and construct a new Mortensen Community Center on the Willard Avenue side of Mill Pond Park to the tune of over $30.3 million drew a crowd, as well as questions pertaining to environmental and cost concerns.

       At its first meeting since forwarding the tentative plan to the Town Council, the project building committee is attempting to address some of the issues raised by residents both at the hearing and when the body convened last Monday.

       One of the primary questions raised has been whether or not a new community center is justified, given the chosen Mill Pond Park location and extra costs it entails. However proponents of the plan have said that moving the building is only a little bit more expensive than simply renovating the center within the existing one. The committee already ran into some problems earlier this year when cost estimates for renovating the town hall building came in at just less than double the $11.1 million originally projected for that portion of the project.

       The $30.3 million price tag is a slight improvement from the $32.3 million the construction inflation-related cost increases had brought it to, but it is still, as both residents and committee members have said, a lot of money.

       “When the decision was made to separate the building, nobody knew what it was going to cost,” said Council and Committee member Dan Dinunzio.

       But most of the total cost, as well as any additional expenses the committee may encounter further down the road, is primarily in the existing building, said Deputy Mayor and Committee Chair Clarke Castelle.

       “The cost of the project is a reflection of its scope-primarily the need to replace all mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems in the current town hall, including the roof,” Castelle read from a statement handed out to town residents at the committee meeting, and recited into the record at the Council table the following night. “A fully renovated town hall will be an attractive and safe space for both the public and [town] staff.”

       Part of the backlash surrounding the proposal has been due to the fact that the $30.3 million is being borrowed, but that will only equate to a peak $3.4 million in annual debt service--part of a $6.3 million yearly cap that combines that and pay as you go expenditures--for all of the town’s bonds, Castelle wrote in his statement.

       “The maximum debt of $30 million is a relatively modest figure for a town the size of Newington with a Grand List of $2.5 billion and annual revenue of $87 million,” Castelle read at the building committee meeting.

       The project is not expected to raise the mill rate, Town Manager John Salomone has said.

       But for many of the residents who have come out to voice their perspectives on the proposal, it is about more than the dollar figures. The town will hold a referendum to decide the fate of the project Sept. 9--a switch from an original August date that was made at the public hearing--but the plan will still not have been put before the state’s Inland Wetland Commission when voters go to the polls this fall.

       The town will be required to work with the Commission throughout the project to prevent and mitigate damage to wetlands in the area, but how much of the former can be done once the construction of the new building already has the green light?

       That’s the question Newington resident Gayle Budrejko posed during the public comments segment of the committee meeting last Monday July 7.

       “Would [the Commission] be, since the referendum has already passed, there to just minimize the damage, or could it, if at that point the damage has been determined to be enough, stop [the project]?” Budrejko asked the committee.

       It’s typical for a project to go to the Commission last because a regulatory body cannot look at a plan that has not officially received funding or been finalized, Salomone said.

       Ultimately the Newington Conservation Commission would have the final say regarding approval of the project based on its potential impact on nearby wetlands, said Mayor Stephen Woods at the Council meeting the following night.

       At the public hearing, residents proposed writing the referendum to include the option of renovating the Mortensen Community Center within the framework of town hall, instead of constructing it anew.

       “Renovations on the site would require the gym to be closed for a year or more, probably for two winters, forcing cancellation of the intermural travel basketball program, as well as the volleyball, badminton, dance and exercise programs, now held in the Community Center, during that time,” Castelle read from his statement.

       The vacated space will be part of department expansion within the building, Castelle said.

       “The primary beneficiary will be the Human Services Department, so that residents who utilize its services will find a more private and accommodating setting,” he said.