Thursday, January 21, 2010

From the Refrigerator to the Front Burner: A Stimulating Tale, Part 2

In December 2008, when Mayor Sebastian Giuliano made his list of eight projects which could potentially attract federal stimulus dollars he was sure that many of the projects were good candidates for funding.

This list included:the Coginchaug River protection project; the Wilcox Bridge re-construction; reconstruction of Industrial Park Road, Nejako Drive, Westlake Drive and Westfield Street; the Melilli Plaza reconstruction; water line installation for Westfield; North End renewal project; the Bartholomew Road pump station; and a multiple-function storage facility.

In the end, the Industrial Park Road project would be funded, allowing the city to consider funding another project on the list with surplus bond money, the Melilli Plaza parking reconstruction.

"We were able to take a project that was off the back burner," Giuliano said.  "In fact it was off the back burner and in the refrigerator, and we were able to put it back on the front burner."

How stimulus money makes the Melilli Plaza reconstruction possible is an instructive tale of how the city can find money, even in a tough economy, when they want to get a job done.

Rell delegates stimulus dollar distribution

At the time the list was made, there was no knowledge of how projects would be picked.

In the end, Governor Rell declared that all funding would come through her office, and that state agencies would be in charge of distributing funds for projects associated with those agencies.  Hence, education funding flowed (though some would argue that "trickle" is the more appropriate verb), from the State Department of Education, and transportation projects would be funded through the State Department of Transportation.

And indeed, the mystery of how money was distributed is evident in the projects which were eventually funded.  Some of the money came to town in the form of Community Development Block Grants, which are annually funded by the state.  The stimulus package allowed the state to provide money it would not have had at its disposal, and so the St. Vincent de Paul Place, Mercy House, Russell Library and  the Godfrey Library received funding for various projects.  The Community Health Center received a variety of grants for capital expenditures and technology.  Wesleyan University received research grants.  The city received money to clean up brown fields at the Remington Rand plant.  The Board of Education received funding for educating students with disabilities, and for food support programs, among others.  Some of the money was filtered through state agencies, some can directly from the feds.

While city officials were happy to have the input of these funds, none of these projects were among those on the mayor's original list.

One project from the mayor's list was chosen - the resurfacing of Industrial Park Road.  This project was selected by the Midstate Regional Planning Agency for funding.  After the project was selected, Middletown was required to complete a long and detailed application, and the state did its own testing and analysis.

The state giveth and the state taketh away

According to Middletown's Deputy Director of Public Works, Bob Dobmeier, the state rejected Middletown's analysis for milling and resurfacing.

"They found one crack in the road, did a boring, and determined that we needed to go down another three inches," Dobmeier said.  That increased the cost of completing the project from approximately $800,000 to an estimated $1.2 million.

On top of that, because available monies needed to be distributed between eight communities in the Midstate Region, the maximum Middletown would receive is $1,043,373.  In addition, the state DOT will deduct $90,615 from that amount for audits and administrative oversight, leaving Middletown $952,758 to complete the job.

"That's okay," Dobmeier said.  "I think we can do well in the bidding, and be able to cover the job."

If the Common Council accepts the stimulus funds, the $800,000 originally bonded for the job becomes available to be used for another project, as long as the Common Council approves a reassignment of those bonded dollars.

Beating the tar out of stimulus dollars

Enter the Melilli Plaza parking project.

Originally bonded at $400,000 in 2005, the cost estimate for the project ballooned to $962,000 when environmental, access and security concerns became an issue after review by city departments and at public meetings.

At a December Public Works Commission meeting, the project was nearly scuttled when commissioners found that the price estimate had skyrocketed, and members of the community raised broad concerns about a project which might pollute the Connecticut River while delivering no additional parking spaces to the city.

A month later, DPW commissioners voted to accept the project at a cost of nearly a million dollars when they found out that they might tap dollars originally bonded for Industrial Park Road.

"This is about maximizing the use of that parking space," Common Council member and DPW commissioner Ron Klattenberg said.  "It's not about adding more spaces.  I see this as a revenue generator, but you've got to fix up that lot to be able to draw Middletown residents, and visitors to Middletown to use it."

"If we don't fix it up, people aren't going to take advantage of it," Public Works Director Bill Russo said.  "The lighting, the security, the accessibility has all got to be upgraded."

"It allows us to do something that needs to be done, and we couldn't otherwise do, especially in this economy," said Mayor Sebastian Giuliano.

"It lets us be creative in the way stimulus money affects the city," Klattenberg said.  "The Council has to reassign the bond money.  Having access to that bond money really had an impact on the way I thought about the Melilli project."

While many of the most important city players are on board about the Melilli project, many segments of the community are questioning why the city is rushing to spend money to connect and repave a set of lots which will not net out with additional spaces, and will, according to some, have a negative impact on environment,  traffic flow and downtown aesthetics.

TOMORROW: A Coda to the Stimuating Tale: Tithing to the State

1 comment:

Brian Stewart said...

I'd like to know why the Public Works Commission agreed in December to table consideration of the project until the Parking Director was hired, and then reversed itself (without comment, as far as I know) in January and voted 2-1 to forward the project as proposed to Economic Development and Council. Why did it become urgent all of a sudden? And why is it necessary to remove all the trees and regrade the entire lot, including the recently repaved lower lot? Is it simply because the money is there and can be spent, or is this actually a defensible expansion of the original project?