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Stonington finance board finalizes plan to spend $5.2 million in COVID relief funds

Stonington — After almost four hours of discussion Wednesday night, the Board of Finance finalized a plan on how to spend $5.2 million in federal COVID-19 relief money from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA.

While there is no requirement that the plan be approved by voters, the Board of Selectmen will send the proposal to a Town Meeting vote on Oct. 18.

On Wednesday night, the board eliminated some items in its preliminary proposal and preserved funding for others.

Even though exact cost estimates are not available and the price is now projected to rise to almost $2.6 million, the board decided to keep the $1.5 million for HVAC improvements at Town Hall and the Human Services Department in the plan. But it also allocated $1 million for a contingency fund to offset increased costs for items it kept on the projects list.

The biggest debate was over using $1.4 million to help the school system upgrade the HVAC system at the middle school at a cost of $2.8 million. Board member Bob Stachen unsuccessfully pressed his fellow members to approve the funding, saying that while adults who work at Town Hall and Human Services, which are both set to receive HVAC upgrades, can get vaccinated against COVID-19, many of the students at the middle school cannot. HVAC systems help filter the air in buildings.

But other board members expressed concerns about what they called school officials' ongoing lack of transparency about the system's finances and pointed out the school system has received $4.1 million in federal COVID relief funding.

The finance board did include $100,000 in the plan to show its commitment to the middle school project. The board added that school officials are working to obtain state funding and also can seek money in next year's capital improvement budget for the work.

The board also cut $200,000 to start a child psychiatric care center in the chorus room of the former Pawcatuck Middle School.

The plan includes $600,000 to replace the dome that covers the salt supply at the Public Works Department because its concrete walls are deteriorating.

While First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough had sought $500,000 for a low- and no-interest loan program for residents to make improvements to their homes, the board approved $150,000 so a pilot program could begin. The board also added $200,000 to the proposed $500,000 for road paving in town. In the current town budget, the board had cut $440,000 for paving.

The board also reduced the requested funding for several outside agencies. The plan now calls for $75,000 to go to the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, $52,000 to the Cultural Coalition of Southeastern Connecticut, $13,000 to the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, and a total of $40,000 to the three libraries that serve the town.

The board also cut a proposed $900,000 to link two dead-end water lines and create a looped system to improve fire protection in Pawcatuck because the town does not yet have the additional $1.9 million in federal money to complete that project. Instead, money from the contingency fund will be used to design and engineer the project.

Another $375,000 will be used for drainage and paving work at Town Hall, $150,000 to create additional parking at the Fourth District Voting Hall in downtown Mystic, helping to alleviate the village's parking shortage and $80,000 will help pay for HVAC installation in the Stonington Community Center auditorium and gym where classrooms were created during the coronavirus pandemic. 

j.wojtas@theday.com

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