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During a sometimes tense two-hour discussion last night, the Town Council aired concerns and took a small step forward toward allowing Food Pantry of North Branford (FPNB)to operate from a portion of North Branford Hall.
At the Aug. 12 Town Council meeting, the council voted 6-2, with one abstention, to accept a floor plan design provided by FPNB.
Meanwhile, the question of leasing the town building for $1 annually to FPNB remained on the table. A small portion of the building is already being used by Friends of North Branford Libraries. Adding FPNP's use would create a co-use of the town building in which two all-volunteer programs would operate.
By the end of last night's meeting, the direction the lease appeared to be heading in: a three-year lease, allowing FPNB to operate as a non-profit from a portion of the building for $1 per year, with FPNB paying the heat and electricity costs through the end of the fiscal year (June 30, 2015) and the town paying those costs in years two and three. Additionally, the town would, in a reasonable amount of time, complete work needed to bring the building on line and up to standards for a changed use. To help defray costs, FPNB would bring in donations and contributions, specifically in the form of materials to help rebuild the handicapped accessible ramp. The town engineer would provide the design for the new ramp.
Last night, Town Attorney John Gesmonde also recommended the lease include a provision that "...allows that the town, if at some point in the future, needs that space, (the town) has the right to take back that space."
If the town doesn't include such a provision, "...basically, we're giving them an indefinite lease," Gesmonde pointed out. "It seems to me both (parties) ought to have the right to look at the lease every three years."
Questions about the need to upgrade the building before it can be used by FPNB and what those costs will be as well as what future costs may be incurred by the town were once again raised by council members, with no definitive answer yet available. Those definitive costs are hoped to be determined in time for the council to address the lease with more clarity at its September meeting.
In July, the council had asked Gesmonde to draw up a lease agreement, originally with the expectation that the town would use budgeted monies to pay $12,000 to $15,000 in heat and electricity costs per year. Meanwhile, FPNB volunteers were allowed inside the hall to clean and paint the interior and prep for setting up a reception/waiting area, shopping area and storage/receiving area.
The project was then put on hold after expected carrying cost monies were found to have been sliced from the town budget after the hall was shut down last fall. The town also determined a floor plan and operating hours needed to be provided by FPNB. Costs to the town for fixes to the building also needed to be determined.
The expectation last night was that most of those questions would be answered. For their part, FPNB did provide the council with a floor plan and report on proposed usage as well as operating hours. However, when Town Manager Mike Paulhus reported on quotes of $1,940 to replace three back steps at the hall and $60,000 to replace and upgrade a ramp to ADA standards, the council began debating whether it could justify the expense. The town could appropriate $60,000 from capital expense bonding funds left over from the North Branford Intermediate School project, explained Town Finance Director Anthony Esposito.
Council member Joseph Faughnan said he recognized what the FPNB members have framed as an urgent need for the program's services, but he worried the council might be allowing "...guilt to make a decision that's not going to make sense."
"We have a prospective $60,000 bill for a very good project (but) the project is now driving the cost," said Faughnan.
Council member Vincent Caprio said he supported the plans and need to open FPNB and said his restaurant business, which operates seven days a week, does not cost anywhere in the vicinity of $15,000 in carrying costs annually; so he didn't expect that FPNB, which would open for clients one to two days a week, could reach that amount annually.
Council member Eric Hodgson suggested fundraising or earmarking donations to offset building improvement costs faced by the town, much like the money being raised by his grassroots group North Branford Unleashed, to help the town open a dog park.
"I have no problem with the concept, I have a problem with the process," agreed Council member Al Rose, adding FPBN is an unbudgeted project in a town which scrutinizes its annual budget. Rose said, "We search for pennies, we cut pennies...and we can come up with $60,000 on a whim?"
Mayor Anthony Candelora wondered whether asking taxpayers underwrite additional expenses would be the best approach, saying "...we're at 30 mills -- (are) we putting more people in a food pantry situation?"
Candelora also pointed out that the town has two food pantry locations. One is run out of storage space at North Branford First Congregational Church and the other from ACES in Northford. Each site is open on day per week to provide non-perishable food collected from residents. Deputy Mayor Joanne Wentworth founded the town's food bank program over 30 years ago.
Branford-North Branford Judge of Probate Frank Forgione, an attorney and North Branford resident who is spearheading the formation of FPNB with resident and Matt's Mission Foundation founder Lynn Riordan, said FPNB would allow access to Connecticut Food Bank, which provides food at 11 to 14 cents a pound. FPNB is also planning to offer fresh fruit, dairy, eggs and meat and will be set up so that clients will be able to "shop" shelves for the specific food each family requires.
"North Branford is the only town in the area which can't access Connecticut Food Bank. The cost of food through Connecticut Food Bank is so low, it would be a shame not to access it," said Forgione.
Forgione acknowledged that since the time the idea was first brought to the council in June, "...a lot of rumors" have been circulating, Specifically, Forgione wanted to clarify FPNB would be limited to North Branford residents only and that FPNB is an all-volunteer organization, meaning "...no one is going to get paid," said Forgione.
As for the final fixes needed to the building, Forgione noted, "...if this building is going to be used (by the town)...that work needs to done, no matter what." Rather than "watch it deteriorate," he said he felt the best use for the building was to the proposed use by FPNB with continued use by Friends of North Branford Libraries.
"This is a great community with a great town. This is an idea we've been kicking around for a couple of years and it seems to me like it's the right time," said Forgione, asking the council to "fill in the holes" on the lease.
"We can prove to you in two and a half years you made a great decision at minimal cost per capita," he said.
Riordan noted that a meeting with the Friends group was very productive, including a decision by the Friends to operate during the same hours as FPNB to best coordinate the co-use of the building.
"It' solves a lot of issues," said Riordan, who also offered to fundraise to offset costs worrying the council. "I’m all about fundraising. I am a team player. I'm only here for the town," she said.
The council welcomed Riordan's offer to put Public Works Director Fran Merola and Town Engineer Kurt Weiss together with professionals who had offered demolition services and concrete to provide for replacing the ramp at the hall. With those components contributed, the costs to the town should be reduced.
Council member Rose called for the vote to approve the FPNB square footage and preliminary layout plan for the pantry, incorporating use of the hall and back room. The 6-2-1 vote to approve was made.