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UPDATED: East Lyme to hold public safety building referendum Oct. 1

East Lyme — The Board of Selectmen unanimously voted in a special meeting Monday night to schedule a referendum for Oct. 1 on two questions regarding funding for the Public Safety Building Project: one to increase the original $5 million bond authorization by $985,000, and one to appropriate $1.2 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements to the project.

Voting will take place at the East Lyme Community Center from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

In a 17-minute meeting Monday, First Selectman Mark Nickerson said absentee ballots will be available to those who qualify for absentee ballots in a normal situation, but a voter cannot get an absentee ballot for COVID-19-related reasons.

In a referendum held in February 2019, voters approved a $5 million public safety facility by a 1,389-803 vote. After receiving construction bids and tallying additional costs, the Public Safety Building Vision Committee determined this past spring that the plan would need an additional $2.17 million.

In July, the Board of Finance denied a request to bond the additional $2.17 million by a 3-3 vote. But then the town learned it would receive a $1.73 million reimbursement from FEMA for money spent in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Nickerson said he wasn't sure why it took so long to get the reimbursement.

"I'm sure they were overwhelmed with claims," he said. "Generally, it does take years to get FEMA money. That was an exceptionally long period of time."

Nickerson explained that of the $1.73 million, $200,000 is being used for the boardwalk project and $330,000 is for a contingency fund, possibly for COVID-related expenses later this year, leaving $1.2 million for the public safety building.

He is in favor of using the FEMA money for this project because "the police station is a need, not a want," and he doesn't think it would be appropriate to save the money for a "rainy day."

Nickerson is "hopeful" that voters will approve the referenda but said if the FEMA question is voted down, it would be up to the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance to decide where to spend that money. In that case, he said it might be used for COVID-related expenses, or for reducing the capital plan next year, such as paying for the next fire truck or police car or dump truck.

At its special meeting last Thursday, the Board of Finance unanimously approved a resolution increasing the bond authorization to $5,985,000.

Board member Anne Santoro, who voted in favor of the request in July, said she was pleased that by using the FEMA money, the town reduced its need to borrow. She also noted this will allow the town to complete the financing of the project rather than piecemealing the funding, saying that's "important for continuity, for consolidation of services, and to avoid future extra costs."

Asked Monday how taxpayers can be assured there won't be unexpected project costs later, Nickerson replied, "The voters can be assured that this is the final cost. We have a contingency already built into the plan, we have an architect that has spent a year on this project, we have the plan, and we also have already gone out to bid and already have a contract."

Board of Finance Chairwoman Camille Alberti said at last week's meeting she has "never been an advocate for this plan," that she would've preferred to build new in a better location, but that she was voting yes "to move it forward, because I think the taxpayers deserve the chance to weigh in, especially since we've done all that we could to get them as much information as we could." She had voted no in July.

Democratic Registrar of Voters Wendi Sims said at the meeting last week that with COVID-19 concerns, the town will make curbside voting available to those who would rather stay in their vehicles than enter the polling place.

The town already bonded $3 million this August and will bond $2 million next August, and an additional $985,000 will be bonded in August 2022 if the referendum is approved, Finance Director Anna Johnson said. The total debt payment would be a little over $7.7 million, with an average annual payment of $386,600 for the town.

Johnson said the annual tax impact would be $44.25 for a home assessed at $250,000, $61.96 for a home assessed at $350,000, and $79.66 for a home assessed at $450,000.

e.moser@theday.com

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