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.