Monday night the RTM voted to approve the Fiscal Year 2024 town budget.
Even though the 230-member body voted to end the meeting by midnight, it wasn’t necessary. It was a done deal by 9:30pm.
During their April decision day, Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) members were split along party lines on numerous budget items. Time and again Republican chair Dan Ozizmir cast his tie-breaking vote in order to cut proposed spending.
One exception was $950,000 for design work for a new Hamill Rink.
RTM is the final stop for the budget, but their purview is limited to approving, deleting or reducing funding.
And cut they did.
The town’s aging ice rink, located in Byram and named after Dorothy Hamill 50+ years ago, needs replacement or major renovation.
Bill Drake, chair of the Rink User Committee, has urged “the flip,” which would swap the location of the rink with adjacent Strazza ballfield. Doing so would mean the exiting rink could be used during construction of a new rink.
The Byram Neighborhood Association is on record as opposing “the flip” on the grounds it would result in a substantial loss of open space which is in short supply in Byram. The BNA’s position is that the best option would be to rebuild a new modern rink on the existing rink location, which would keep the rest of the park as open space.
In December 2021 when the rink project was presented to P&Z as a pre-application, the commission chair Margarita Alban pushed back, noting that extensive re-grading of the parkland would disturb 100% of the property, removing vegetation, trees and plantings.
At BET decision day last month the estimated cost of the rink project was unexpectedly halved from $21 to $11 million, resulting in jokes about a Groupon half-price deal.
Mr. Drake, who is also a member of the BET, addressed the RTM Monday night to say he understood why the members would want the rink project to go through the Municipal Improvement process including a pubic hearing component before singing off on the $950,000, and urged them to delete the item.
“Deleting this item will allow the DPW to bring the rink back in a month, or a few months as an interim appropriation after the MI approval by the Board o Selectmen, Planning & Zoning commission and the RTM.”
Budget Overview Committee chair Lucia Jansen, motioned to delete the $950,000.
Ms Jansen said members of the three RTM committees that has discussed the $950K appropriation – her BOC, the Parks & Rec Committee and Public Work Committee – had all expressed frustration with the “erratic trajectory” the project had taken since the RTM originally funded the rink replacement in 2019 with over $430,000 for the project to move forward and apply and receive MI approval.
She shared a catalog of frustrations.
She said that in December 2021 it was first revealed at the Planning & Zoning MI meeting that the rink project had greatly expanded to a large scale renovation featuring “the flip” to place the rink in the center of the park, add a 36 ft wide road access road with sidewalks to cut through the middle of the park, and extend the operating season from six months to 12 months, putting further constraint on shared parking with the users of adjacent Strazza field.
Jansen said the rink proponents had retreated and declined to pursue formal MI after neighbors pushed back, military veterans were concerned about protecting the memorial grove of trees, and the P&Z commission questioned the significant site disturbance from re-grading and deep trenching for utilities if the rink location was flipped with Strazza field.
“It really feels like Groundhog Day,” Jansen said. “Once again the proponents in fiscal year 2024 are requesting the exact same budget appropriation denied before.”
RTM member Lucy von Brachel, a Byram resident, noted that unlike school capital projects, town capital projects don’t require building committees, which she said had resulted in issues.
She noted that the First Selectman’s Rink User Committee, who had not come through the RTM, had been advising on the project.
“I think that has created some issues over the past three years….It’s been extremely frustrating to watch this process unfold so awkwardly,” von Brachel said. “We should take a second look at how this should work and how we’ll manage this project going forward, so that we don’t have meetings like this where we spend a lot of time discussing this stuff and then have it pulled back at the last second.”
Another Byram resident, Al Shehadi, agreed.
“The RTM should reconsider the way the committee is set up. The Rink User Committee has been trying to expropriate the entire park,” Shehadi said. “They have been at this way too long. They don’t have consensus on anything. In addition to cutting the funds, the whole issue of who is leading the decision making process should be reconsidered.”
At the end of the meeting, the budget was approved, minus the $950,000 for the rink.
The vote to delete the $950,000 passed 187 yes, 13 no, and 9 abstentions.
The BET will meet later this month and ultimately set the town’s final mill rate.
Central Middle School
On WGCH 1490am Tuesday morning RTM moderator pro tempore Kate LoBalbo explained the status of funding for a new Central Middle School given the budget included a reduced number for the project.
The school was condemned in February 2021 by the now retired Bill Marr, the town’s building official. Students were dispersed for a couple weeks to other schools while the building was shored up for them to be safely returned, but not on a permanent basis. There is consensus the building must be replaced, but there has been strong differences of opinion on the size of the new building and how much to budget for it.
Last month the BET voted along party lines 7-6 – with Mr. Ozizmir casting the tie-breaker vote – to reduce the CMS building project by $7.74 million to $67.5 million.
Ms LoBalbo described the $67.5 million a placeholder, given that final cost estimates have yet to be received by the building committee. She described the critical timeline given the town hopes to receive some funds from the state of Connecticut.
The state requires the application by June 30. Missing that deadline would jeopardize submitting an application for reimbursement from the state. The hope is to apply for the grant by June 30. From there, the town would learn in December whether a grant was approved. Then, if approved, the funds would be released the following year.
“That number has been reduced since its original request by the Board of Education. Even the BET chair himself said if we don’t have the number in time, we’ll have to see what our options are. Whether that’s an interim appropriation if the amount is above $67.5 million – an interim appropriation at a special meeting or other adjustments. The hope is we don’t miss the budget cycle.”
“There is a very long timeline on these things, so obviously it’s important to act,” LoBalbo said. “We don’t want to be dragging our feet.”
The following budget was approved, minus the $950,000 for the rink: