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East Lyme looks to apply FEMA windfall toward future police building

East Lyme — First Selectman Mark Nickerson announced Tuesday the town may now have a solution to complete its future public safety building without asking taxpayers for more money to do so, after learning the town will receive a nearly $2 million reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for money it spent in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

The town will receive the money in coming weeks in two separate reimbursements: one for $836,548 and the other for $894,058, totaling $1.73 million, the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, which is receiving the money from FEMA to disburse to East Lyme, confirmed Tuesday. That's still $500,000 less than what town officials have estimated is needed to fully complete the proposed public safety building, but Nickerson said by phone Tuesday there are many possible avenues the town can take to find the money now or later.

“We need to move our police, dispatch, fire marshal office and emergency operations into a healthy, safe and professional space as soon as possible,” Nickerson wrote in an email Tuesday morning. “This will enable the town to finally solve this problem without using any additional East Lyme taxpayer funding.”

The town's police department currently is housed in a small, old building that has significant flooding, mold and mildew issues on Main Street, and pays approximately $46,000 annually to use the Waterford police holding cell area to house prisoners after arrest.

Nickerson's announcement comes a day before the Board of Finance was set to again deliberate, per the Board of Selectmen’s request, whether it should approve the allocation of an additional $2.17 million toward completing the public safety building after denying the request in July.

That July decision came after the vision committee planning the building renovations had determined this spring it needed that much more to complete the project, on top of the $5 million voters had approved at referendum in early 2019, bringing total project costs to about $7.2 million.

The town already has spent $2.8 million of that $5 million to purchase the former Honeywell building at 277 W. Main St., which will be the new public safety building, leaving just $2.2 million left to pay for needed renovations. The building will consolidate the town's police force, dispatch center and fire marshal's office.

“Combined with the ($2.2 million) already appropriated for the project, this (FEMA reimbursement) will be enough to begin the rehab project and substantially ready the building,” Nickerson wrote.

The state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection confirmed Tuesday with The Day that the town can spend the FEMA reimbursement how it sees fit, since the money is a reimbursement and not, say, a grant, said the department's public assistance coordinator Dana Conover, who worked directly with the town and then-First Selectman Paul Formica to file the claims with FEMA.

Nickerson later said by phone he will recommend to both the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance to consider applying the entirety of the money to the public safety building project. Both boards will need to approve allocating the money toward the project before town residents have a final say in the matter at a town meeting later this year, he said.

The selected contractor, Noble Construction and Management of Centerbrook, already has told the town it is willing to extend to late October its deadline for the town to sign a construction contract, to allow the town more time to align financing for the project.

Nickerson acknowledged Tuesday that the $1.7 million reimbursement will not cover the entirety of the additional $2.2 million town officials have said they need to complete the project as recommended by the Public Safety Building Vision Committee. The committee's recommendations include a sally port and holding cell area, as well as an elevator cart, which combined will add approximately $1 million to the project's bottom line, but those items can be eliminated.

“That (remaining $500,000) deserves a conversation and a discussion” with the selectmen and finance boards, Nickerson said. “Whether we finish the building now, which would be more efficient and less expensive, or we go back later, there are several different options to fund the half million or to scale back the project.”

He said the town, for example, could decide to hold off planned holding cells and an elevator until it has money, or could consider short-term financing options to finish the project now.

Board of Finance Chairwoman Camille Alberti said that while Nickerson’s announcement is “great news,” she said she still expects the Board of Selectmen to outline a very specific plan for how it intends to pay for the $500,000 needed to fully complete the project, should the board decide it wants to build out a sally port and holding cells, as well as other future repairs the building will need in the next five to 10 years, such as a roof replacement and a new HVAC unit, among other items.

"The bottom line is that the Board of Finance has known for years that this money was coming in, we just didn’t know when it would be coming in,” Alberti said by phone Tuesday. “This is actually good, we have a windfall of money. It makes (the Board of Selectmen) prioritize what’s more important. ... If we steer the FEMA funds toward the (public safety building) project, there won’t necessarily be a hit to the taxpayers because we won’t have to go out and bond for the money and we can then keep our debt levels lower for the next few years and that’s a worthwhile goal.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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