No escaping referendum for Preston playground, law firm says

Preston - A plan to avoid a referendum to fund a new playground at the Preston Veterans' Memorial School has been nixed by the town's law firm because the cost of the project exceeds the $100,000 threshold that triggers a vote.

The decision and scheduling process required for a referendum now casts doubt over whether the project could be completed before winter.

The boards of finance and education had hoped to avoid a referendum by having the school board approve spending $28,000 from the 2013-14 budget for the playground. That would have left $98,861 of the total $126,861 project cost to be approved by voters at a town meeting, with funds coming from the town surplus in the current fiscal year.

But the town's law firm, Halloran & Sage, told officials that because the entire cost would be footed by town funds, a referendum is necessary. Board of Finance Chairman Jerry Grabarek said he sought the legal opinion to ensure the process was done properly.

First Selectman Robert Congdon also said the town attorney informed him that he could not publish legal notices for both a town meeting and a referendum at the same time - a move that would have saved a week in the process.

The legal notice for the town meeting would have to be published seven days in advance, and the referendum legal notice seven days before the vote. The earliest the town meeting could be held would be July 30. And because the Republican state primary will be Aug. 12, the referendum would have to be held the following Tuesday, Aug. 19.

That schedule makes it unlikely the project could be constructed by this fall, PTO President Danette Dykema said. The project calls for a rubberized ground surface that would have to be installed before cold weather sets in. Now, she said, the group is considering asking town officials to wait until the November regular election to hold the referendum.

"August is a bad time to have a referendum," Dykema said. "Who would be around to vote?"

The town does not have a minimum turnout requirement for referendums, but Dykema said she would be concerned about having enough support for the project in a very low turnout.

The Board of Finance is scheduled to discuss the project at its meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at Town Hall, and could recommend that the Board of Selectmen schedule a town meeting and referendum. The Board of Selectmen meets at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.

For the past year, a group of parents has been advocating and researching replacing the playground - which was removed for safety reasons - for second- through fifth-graders at Preston Veterans' Memorial School. The group first proposed a project that exceeded $200,000, and town and school officials asked members to pare down the project.

Dykema said she does not yet know whether the project can be reduced even further without losing key features.

"It's a little bit of a bummer," she said of the delay. "It's a little disappointing. We were so close."

Grabarek has praised the parents for their hard work on the project and has supported seeking voter approval for the playground. The Board of Education approved of allowing the playground to be open to the public during non-school hours and agreed to be responsible for regular maintenance.

Security cameras might need to be added to improve monitoring of the playground, Superintendent John Welch said.

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