East Lyme's proposed public safety facility moves to referendum

East Lyme — Both the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance voted unanimously this week to move a proposed public safety facility to a town referendum for final say.

After a five-hour special meeting Wednesday deliberating the proposal, the Board of Finance voted to decrease the amount the town is allowed to bond out for the project, approving $5 million — $2.77 million for the building purchase and $2.23 million for needed renovations — instead of an original near-$6 million estimate.

Moving forward, taxpayers will now be tasked with approving the proposal, as well as the new $5 million limit, at a referendum. A date for the vote has not been set, First Selectman Mark Nickerson said by phone Thursday.

A task force charged with putting together and presenting the proposal originally estimated that, aside from the $2.77 million needed to purchase the 30,000-square-foot Honeywell Building on 17 acres at 277 W. Main St., an additional $3.2 million would be required to renovate it into a full-functioning policing and public safety facility.

Those costs would account for building in holding cell space, an evidence room, an arms lockup room and storage, among other features. In total, the task force, which included Nickerson, Mark Powers, Thomas Gardner and Police Commission Chairman Dan Price, among other members, said the proposal would cost taxpayers nearly $6 million bonded out over 20 years to see the entirety of the project through.

But after members of the Board of Finance, all of whom on Wednesday night were supportive of the building, pressed Nickerson to find areas to make cuts, Nickerson acknowledged that the town could save up to $1 million if it were to hold off building holding cells. He said the town potentially could extend its three-year agreement with Waterford and continue using the town's holding cells for overnight holding only. The town pays about $42,000 annually under that agreement.

If town officials were to decide after the referendum not to build those cells, Nickerson said East Lyme police still would be able to process prisoners for same-day release at the new public safety complex. Evidence lockup, as well, still would move into the proposed facility. Presently, evidence lockup also is housed at Waterford's police department.

“Part of (last night’s) discussion was maintaining the overnight holding cells (we use) in Waterford in the spirit of regionalism,” Nickerson said, while also stating that less than 20 percent of the arrests East Lyme police make on an annual basis require overnight holding.

Moving forward, if the proposal passes at referendum, Nickerson said a vision committee will be formed to oversee how the $5 million will be spent for the needed renovations. Within that is still the possibility to build out holding cells if the committee finds that to be affordable.

That committee, he said in Wednesday’s meeting, could consist of several members from the Board of Finance and the Board of Selectmen, as well as other town officials.

“They will prioritize and will try to keep (the needed renovations) under budget, and if they determine they need more, they will have to go back to (putting that on) the capital plan,” Nickerson said. “We are pretty confident that what they need to do will be in that $5 million.”

“This is a win-win for the town," he continued. "We are finally solving a problem. This plan has been unanimously voted on and we will have elected officials on this vision committee who will steer us to spend this money wisely, economically and will be making decisions based upon value to the taxpayer."

When asked if he thought taxpayers would want to approve a $5 million proposal, Nickerson said, “I would hope that the voters will see that the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance worked very hard to ensure that this is a good move for the town and that saving a million off the plan, forging a long-term relationship with Waterford’s Police Department and regionalizing prisoner lockup is good for everyone.”

The public is invited to tour the East Lyme Police Department's present facility at 278 Main St. from 1 to 3 p.m. this Saturday. Members from the public safety complex task force will be present to answer questions.

m.biekert@theday.com

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