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East Lyme Board of Finance turns down $2.17 million needed to complete police building

East Lyme — After hours of listening to the public and town officials about which course of action the town should take on its future public safety building during a special meeting Monday night, the Board of Finance denied a request to bond an additional $2.17 million to complete plans to renovate and remodel the building.

Finance board members voted 3-3 on a motion to approve the $2.17 million request. But because the board did not cast a majority vote on the matter, the motion failed. Chairwoman Camille Alberti and members Rich Steel and Ann Cicchiello voted against the request, while members Anne Santoro, Peter DeRosa and John Birmingham voted in favor.

The vote came shortly before 2 a.m. Tuesday, after hours of tense deliberation between board members over what the best course of action would be for both the town’s police force and taxpayers during what some argue has become uncertain financial times due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In good conscience, I can’t advance a narrative that says this project will only cost $7.2 million," Alberti said after Monday's vote. “... All along I’ve always said I prefer a brand-new building. In the end, it’s much cheaper to build a brand-new building rather than try to retrofit something that really doesn’t fit. ... Now you’re asking me to push forward with a narrative I don’t believe in. It goes against my conscience and I simply cannot do that tonight.”

Santoro, who was also a member of the Public Safety Building Vision Committee planning renovations for the building over the last year, argued that the voters in town have decided they do want a public safety building and that the current plan is the best and most viable option. She also argued to allow voters to have the final say at referendum.

“It’s a project that has conceptually been presented to everyone, the boards and the public, and the public has voted overwhelmingly yes,” Santoro said before the vote. “... This is truly a viable project. It’s not going to affect us in a financial way that is so devastating. Are we happy to take on somewhat more debt? No. But relatively speaking, this is a manageable debt we would be taking on.”

The Board of Finance was tasked with deciding on the additional $2.17 million allocation after the vision committee overseeing the project determined this spring it needed that much more to complete the project, on top of the $5 million voters had agreed by referendum to allocate for the project in early 2019.

That referendum came after the Board of Finance voted, in an abundance of caution, to allot $1 million less than what the Board of Selectmen initially proposed spending to purchase and renovate the building in early 2019. If the finance board had agreed on the additional allocation Tuesday morning, residents would have voted at referendum later this month whether to approve the remainder of the project.

Santoro reminded board members Monday that the board approved spending up to $5 million at that point with the expectation that the vision committee would ask for more money after receiving precise numbers for how much the project would actually cost.

The vision committee, which was formed in early 2019 and is made up of selectmen, current and former finance board members, police commission members and members of the public, as well as police Chief Mike Finkelstein, has been working for more than a year to thoroughly plan how best to retrofit the former Honeywell building at 277 West Main St. into a consolidated space that will hold the town’s police force, dispatch center and fire marshal’s office. The town used part of its $5 million allocation to purchase the building for $2.77 million last year.

After months of carefully planning and discussing every aspect of the renovation, the committee recently presented an estimated $7,178,566 renovation plan that includes the cost of purchasing the more than 30,000-square-foot structure, as well as plans for three holding cells and a sally port area and an elevator cab.

The Board of Selectmen unanimously approved the additional $2.17 million request to complete the project at a meeting in June, during which the board hailed the proposed renovation plan as urgent and necessary, as well as the best deal for the town, after describing decades of placing the town's police force on "the back burner" to make way for pressing school projects.

Town police currently are housed in a small Main Street building, which the town rents from owner Dominion for $1 a year, that has significant flooding, mold and mildew issues and which First Selectman Mark Nickerson has argued is not an appropriate work environment. The town also leases holding cell and evidence collection space from Waterford for approximately $46,000 annually because it does not have such space in its current police building.

Members of the public, as well as some finance board members, against approving the additional allocation questioned the honesty and integrity of some town officials who first presented the idea in the fall of 2018 and later promised the project could come within the $5 million budget. They also questioned whether allocating an additional $2.17 million made fiscal sense during uncertain financial times and whether the town should be spending money on its police while communities nationwide are actively debating whether to defund theirs.

Members of the public and finance board members in favor of moving forward with the project argued the town’s police force has been functioning out of less-than-ideal working conditions in its current building for far too long, that retrofitting the new building was the most economical solution and that the committee overseeing the project has worked for more than a year to plan renovations for the building.

Now that the board has denied the $2.17 million request, the Board of Selectmen will decide how to proceed with the project. Alberti suggested at Monday’s special meeting that the Board of Selectmen consider putting the building up for sale. Nickerson, who was not immediately available for comment Tuesday, has said the town does not have an alternative plan or solution for the town’s police force. Selectman Paul Dagle, who chairs the vision committee, made the same point after Tuesday morning's vote.

The Board of Selectmen is schedule to next meet Aug. 5.

m.biekert@theday.com

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