Saturday, December 4, 2010

Buying St. Sebastians School Could Cut Aid To Those in Need

 by Dan Drew
(Dan Drew is a declared exploratory Candidate for Mayor of Middletown)
Two major concerns weighed on my shoulders Tuesday as I listened to Mayor Giuliano’s administration argue in favor of purchasing the former St. Sebastian School building and renovating it to accommodate a senior center and municipal offices.

One: Mayor Giuliano has proposed robbing Peter to pay Paul to finance the project; and Two: the project cost is substantially higher than what was presented to the public.

The first stems from how the mayor proposes to pay for nearly $500,000 of the total project cost (which his administration cited as $1.2 million, but more on that in a minute). He wants to use Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) that the city is awarded from the federal government and which we use to fund important initiatives. The mayor’s plan diverts these funds to the renovation costs of this project.

On the surface, it doesn’t sound like a bad idea, but when you dig a bit deeper, the problem becomes crystal clear. To buy the building from St. Sebastian Church and renovate it, Giuliano will drastically cut funding to organizations working to create jobs and business opportunities, feed the hungry, assist the unemployed, reduce blight, and improve neighborhood quality and safety. In this economy, we must ask: why would we reduce funding for job creation programs, the food pantry, and soup kitchen? The irony is that many seniors depend on these services for survival.

Here are just some of the 2010 recipients that could be cut over the next several years: the St. Vincent DePaul Soup Kitchen, Amazing Grace Food Pantry, the Russell Library, the Downtown Business District, the Middlesex Business & Industry Foundation, Gilead Community Services, the Connection, the Eddy Shelter, after-school scholarship programs, the Blight Rapid Response Program, Small Business Creation and Expansion Incentive Program, and the Economic Development Job Incentive Program.

Then there is the issue of cost. The architect projected renovation costs of $1.69 million, which represents a complete overhaul of a major portion of the building, still contaminated by lead and asbestos. Giuliano’s administration reduced that figure by nearly a half-million and did so in part by citing illusory savings in the form of volunteer labor for construction.

That price excludes the $800,000 cost of the building, which Mayor Giuliano negotiated with the pastor of St. Sebastian. It turns out that the negotiated price is the same as the bond premium earmarked to pay for the purchase.

The city received the $800,000 this spring prior to the start of negotiations. The money came in right around the time Giuliano was declaring that Middletown was so short on revenue that he could not propose any less than a 7 percent tax hike.

So that brings the cost to $2.49 million for purchase and renovation, and that was the final price the mayor acknowledged. But again, there is more than meets the eye. The inspector’s report said a complete overhaul of the parking lots was needed: “All parking lots are deteriorating and in need of major repair,” the inspector’s report states.

In fact, the architect’s own schematics included additional parking spaces and overhauled parking lots, but the cost of that figure was not included in the architect’s quote.

When the administration was asked about the cost of parking lot construction, it skirted the issue by saying the city’s Department of Public Works would build the lots. They never cited a figure for materials or labor.

The roof on the property’s annex building, slated to be used as a military museum, also needs replacement. Those costs were not included in the work estimates. According to the inspection, the building’s boiler was never tested; it was “visually inspected.” The site is identified by the EPA as a possible hazardous materials site. We still don’t know why or how much any potential abatement could cost.

So where is the money supposed to come from? Giuliano wants to use our $800,000 bond premium to buy the structure. That money could be used to offset a tax increase in 2011, reduce the cost of future borrowing, or pay down some of the debt we’re carrying on our high school. He wants to use CDBG funds and Local Capital Improvement (LOCIP) grants to make up a significant portion of the difference. LOCIP funds are used for emergency repairs and capital expenses like sidewalk repair. Redirecting these funds to this project could open up the city to liability if someone is hurt on an unrepaired sidewalk.

Those sources alone don’t make up the whole cost. The administration plans to go after grants to make up the difference. As a grants writer, I can’t emphasize enough how risky this strategy is. The state budget is billions in the red and grant funding has slowed considerably. Because this is a nationwide trend, winning federal grants has grown much more competitive.

The mayor has sold this project with a lean budget and fat revenue stream. The truth is that the project carries major costs and has little promise of realizing its phantom revenue. We can’t gamble on a mirage of funds from Hartford and Washington. Our times call for thrift and we must remember that this is not the Land of Milk and Honey.

Despite what’s been presented to the public by the administration, the true cost of this project will almost surely be north of $3 million. We should send the project to referendum so that the people can have the final say.

We need a convenient, long-term, and affordable home for our seniors and veterans. But we must also be mindful of the realities of this economy and of this site in particular.

There is a viable alternative, however.

At an approximate market-rate of $300 per square foot for construction, we could build a new senior center at Veterans Park off Washington Street. The senior center proposed in a renovated St. Sebastian School will be 7,000 square feet. An equally-sized, brand-new senior center at Veterans Park will cost $2.1 million – $600,000 less than the architect’s quote and $900,000 less than the likely cost.

In fact, applying the $800,000 bond premium to new construction could reduce the cost of bonding a new project to a much less expensive $1.3 million.

There are additional benefits to this approach. Veterans Park is centrally located between several senior housing complexes. The former St. Sebastian School site cannot be expanded to accommodate an aging Baby Boomer population. A new center at Veterans Park would provide ample space for expansion of the center and its programs. The park also offers outdoor recreation facilities and a pool.

A senior center is long overdue, but it must be three things: prudent, affordable, and sustainable.


Anonymous said...

Drew's suggestion just means lets make our seniors wait even longer. St Seb is a good oppertunity the city should move on it.

So we shouldnt spend our grant money on our seniors and Veterans, just the poor as we always do,

David Bauer said...

I appreciate Dan's interest in the discussion of this project. Even with the new information about the cost of roof repair ($31,000) and other potential mission creep (neighborhood play-scape?), I still think that the $2.5 MM estimate is a reasonably accurate forecast of the project cost.

My unanswered concern about this project is what will be the operational costs, and future capital costs, for this building. The current Senior Center gets free heat & electricity for its $1 per year rent. The Housing Authority landlord is also responsible for all upkeep except the interior and the elevator. It is the operations costs that are driving our tax increases, and deserve the greatest scrutiny.

There is another issue that hasn't been addressed - a lack of meeting space. I want more people involved in our local government, but we need space for regular meetings for City commissions, committees, and proper communication of the City workforce. City Hall is down to the Council Chamber & Room 208 for such activities and special projects such as our annual audit.

I also appreciate Dan's concern over the expenditure of the CDBG funds. Over $720,000 of recent CDBG funds were used in the Broad Park/Nehemiah boondoggle. The last I have heard at the EDC, Bill Warner has promised CHC $600,000 of future CDBG funds for its new Main Street facility. I wish for a more public discussion of better uses for these Federal Grant funds than we have enjoyed lately. I should also note that 20% of the CDBG funds go to directly to Mr. Warner's department's operations.

Anonymous said...

I am a life long dem and I will vote for Dan Drew but in this case I think Warners proposal to use state and federal money to limit cost to Middletown tax payers made a lot of sense.

Anonymous said...


Please be your own man, from this article it appears that you are simply taking direction from the Serracrats.

The only way the Republicans can attack you is to say you will be a 29 year old puppet, think for yourself don't attack just because the otherside proposes something.

Anonymous said...

The last time they went to Vets Park it turned into a $25 million project, we dont need another high school to pay for. Your numbers are way off and make no sense.

Anonymous said...

You mention the Military Museum at St. Sebastian's site but make no mention at the Veterans Park site. You also state that building new would cost less. I hope you have more than the data you gave the readers of $300 dollars per square foot. Where did you get your info from and does that include engineering, site planning, and environmental study to name a few things that need to be done. Plus are you saying that William Warner's numbers are not reliable?

What would make the most sense in a perfect world is to build what was suggested a couple of years ago. But the economy has fallen so that is no longer viable option at this time.

Anonymous said...

Please, Democrats, think this out without the agenda to make the Mayor look bad (like he did with the BOE). This was probably Bill Warner's idea anyway.

The city needs space for a senior center, veterans museum, police substation, and offices/conference rooms, and saving the WPA mural would be the icing on the cake. The City never should have sold Eckersly Hall.

The capital and operating costs have been exhaustively researched and appear very reasonable, and reduce others in other locations. And the costs could be lower if they hired a better, local architect. This purchase is a good idea for the long term, and will save us money.

This is Middletown, not Washington, please put the citizens first, not your parties.

Anonymous said...

Saint Sebastians is 14,000 sq.ft. of usable space. At Drews $300 per sq.ft. for new construction that is $4.2 million without site costs and of course he wants to CHARGE IT by bonding it so us taxpayers can pay interest for 10 years long after he is gone.

Anonymous said...

1) Guliano is a parishoner of St. Sebs. I'm sorry to say that because of this it appears to be biased from the get-go. He should remove himself completely from the process.

2) Has an independent market analysis been performed to determine if $800,000 is a fair market value to pay for a school that's going to require extensive remediation?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Drew, you sure sound like one of the good old boys of Middletown. A Senior Center is long overdue and not to mention a lot of the good old boys will need a place to go after the next election period! If anything your notes sound like a cry for political desperation. Are you gearing up for your campaign already? Yes, these facts should be made public but again...the Sr. Center that was to be built at Vets Park was A LOT more costly...can't these Seniors get a break and have a center that could benefit them?

Anonymous said...

Once again...25 million for Vets Park or 2.5 million for St. Sebs? Is this a political ply for votes Mr. Drew? The information you provided is good to know but really...should Middletown have another empty building verses building another building? Have you been to Vets pool? It needs a complete overhaul and is not large enough to facilitate the children of the town not to mention seniors. Think people before you write your comments and criticisms.

Anonymous said...

Dan Drew,
You just made a big mistake.
I have nothing against people in need but when you put the lazy, I want a hand out , and people perfectly capable to work person before our seniors who worked all their lives and deserve a senior center and more you are not thinking straight.
You need those votes don't you.
This is not the man I want to run Middletown.
Citizens of Middletown are not stupid.
You just lost a lot of the senior votes with those comments you made.
To bad.
You should not listen to those who are advising you. They are just throwing you under the bus.
Your young and have a lot to learn.

Anonymous said...

I read your comments and proposals, but for the past 30 years the Middletown seniors have been told that moving the Senior Center out of the Sobona Tower's activity room is high priority. After all those years its still at the same location. Take a trip (and I will go with you) visit the communities that value seniors and see their centers. Visit Groton; population 43,000, 5,ooo seniors (Middletomn 46'000, 6,000 seniors) They openend their renovated center this passed spring. The center has a membership of 900 and they charge $5 to belong. This facility would make any public facility in Middletown look second class. Go to Enfield, Cheshire, Wallingford, Glastonbury, Fairfield or West Hartford look at their centers.

I am not saying that Eckerly Hall is the best solution. Middletown sold three schools that are now apartments and they are still standing. That's more than can be said about the 30+ year old Woodrow Wilson Junior High School. Eckerly Hall is a stucturaly sound building. Is it currently the best solution to a senior center? No! But with the economy and Middletown's bond and tax burden it is a solution. I'm sure that community does not want another appartment complex.

As to your statements about short changing the other organizations; its time to fund new ideas and proposals. I have been a member of a grant awarding committee and I have seen the same groups asking for funds for the same programs for 20 years. The funds have become part of their budget and the town's budget. I don't say that their programs are not worthy but its time to make funds available for other programs.

Ed Dypa

Anonymous said...

Dan's comments are valid and require every voter in Middletown to ask themselves if this is something they want to support with taxpayer dollars. There are the initial costs to purchase and refurbish the property, which require greater scrutiny, and then there are all of the annual costs that will be incurred by taxpayers every year thereafter. Let's not forget we're all going to pay for a piece of this if it goes through.

And given the massive cost overruns with the high school project, is this a project we really want the town take on right now? Effectively, I'm asking if we all believe that the current administration in place at city hall has matured enough to run this project in a cost effective manner? I'm very doubtful.

Remember those signs Guliano posted all around town when he first ran for Mayor? Got Taxes? My answer...YES...and a bit more thanks to Guliano.

Anonymous said...

The current senior center is located in a reasonably nice space - that has few coast associated with it's operation. While a new space is always nice - the critical question is the programming - the current model of operation is very old school and new space will not change this . The public should be asking how many seniors attend daily and then really ask themselves if they believe it's because the space is not brand new. Take a look at green street arts center - Wesleyan has spent considerable amount of money in both the renovation and programming and they still struggle with attendance - while a move maybe appropriate - what is the game plan for senior engagement and one year out what will success look like. The real expense will be in lost opportunity - as we have a vibrant senior community with almost no visible leadership -

Anonymous said...

So Mr. Drew doesnt want to spend CDBG money to help provide ADA access and to help seniors with very modest income. We can spend LOCIP to put roofs on South Fire and Westfield Fire but can't use it to provide for our seniors? Very sad Mr. Drew, you need to grow up and realize what matters and who made this town what it is. Stop the BS about as new building for the senior center just say we shouldnt provide for seniors because you won't be one for many many years. Very selfish.

Anonymous said...

Its time to grow up Dan and be your own man. Show up tomorrow night and speak in support of this proposal.

Anonymous said...

Apparently, Dan Drew does not understand how CDBG funding works. The lion's share of the federal funding is available ONLY for bricks and mortar projects, NOT for programming costs. In other words, unless the soup kitchen, Oddfellows or any of the other groups mentioned were planning to apply for that money to BUILD something, they would not be competing for the same funds. The funds that cover operations and programming are an entirely different pot.

In fact, this is exactly the sort of item that CDBG bricks-and-mortar funding would be appropriate for - it is a one-time construction cost to help a segment of the community.

I'm not in support of building a senior center at St. Sebastian's School. I don't think the need for a new center at that site has been demonstrated. But claiming that the issue is about CDBG shows a complete misunderstanding of this important source of funding.

Anonymous said...

From HUD:

HUD awards grants to entitlement community grantees to carry out a wide range of community development activities directed toward revitalizing neighborhoods, economic development, and providing improved community facilities and services.

Entitlement communities develop their own programs and funding priorities. However, grantees must give maximum feasible priority to activities which benefit low- and moderate-income persons.

Eligible CDGB uses: "public services, within certain limits;"

Ineligible Uses: "acquisition, construction, or reconstruction of buildings for the general conduct of government;"

Municipal office space counts as "general conduct of government"

Anonymous said...

I am against the purchase of St. Sebastians School for a new senior center. We already have a senior center. But if this idea really has the support of working residents (that is, taxpayers), then perhaps we could steal an idea from boards of education in surrounding areas: Why not "pay to play?" Perhaps seniors could support their center by paying a nominal membership fee, fees for activities (more than the $1.00 charge that is common now). After all, it is a privilege to have a senior center to go to, rather than a right. If they were willing to help out a bit more, I might feel less reticent to support a new center for them. If not, then I think the current one is just fine. The price is right.

Anonymous said...

I am for the purchase but this should go to referendum. Mr. Warner is an exceptional director Dan Drew has his facts all befuddled and it is libelous to spread rumors that funds will be taken from the soph kitchen. Untrue.

Anonymous said...

Remember Democrat Mayor Thorton Gave away Long Lane!! Free building could have been used or sold to generate revenue from prop taxes! don't forget the Dems started this mess when Dan Drew was just a wee lad!