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Town Government

November 30, 2006

Charter Review Going Forward

Photo/Sharon Bass

By Sharon Bass

Upon the urging of at-large Councilman Ron Gambardella, a committee of three was formed several months ago to explore the Town Charter. On Dec. 19, it will meet for the first and likely second-to-last time and expects to submit its findings in January.

“Cleanup is really what’s going to happen more than making major changes. That’s really all that’s going to happen,” said at-large Councilwoman Carol Noble, one of the three appointed by President Al Gorman. First District Councilman Matt Fitch and at-large Betty Wetmore round out the group.

“I don’t think the charter is wrong, I just don’t think it tells the whole story,” said Fitch.

Gambardella has more than a cleanup in mind. Among his wishes is a referendum on the operating budget. “So the town feels it has a say because they can’t rely on the Council to do the right thing, in my opinion,” he said. Gambardella and Wetmore are the only Republicans on the 15-member legislative body and therefore constitute the minority party.

He said he'd also like to see certain department head positions (Finance, Public Works) made professional rather than remain mayoral appointments to increase job security; and four-year terms, instead of the current two-year, for mayor and Council. “There is a large learning curve in local government,” he said.

But Gambardella said he has little hope. “What do I think the outcome of charter revision is going to be? Nothing will get done. This is what this Council is all about. If you want change you have to take out the old and bring in the new,” he said.

If the exploratory group votes to open up the 29-page, 1983 document for revision, Gorman and the mayor will put together a committee of residents, Council members and town employees to enact changes, said Noble.

“You have to examine the whole charter. I think they have to look at positions that were put into the charter that are nonexistent at this point,” she said. For instance, the Water Pollution Control Authority and welfare department no longer exist. “I don’t find anything else irregular in the charter. How we operate is fine,” said Noble.

Fitch thinks a budget referendum is a bad idea. “It paralyzes towns,” he said. If the people vote down a budget, it has to be amended and at least one more referendum held until it passes. What makes it tricky, he said, is there could be conflicting reasons for a failed referendum. Some might feel the school budget is too high. Others might think it’s too low.

The tax collector, assessor and purchasing agent posts have also changed since the charter was made. They are still mayoral appointments, as stipulated on page 18, but the collector and purchasing agent were made union positions during the Carusone Administration (1987-’91). Carusone said the assessor's position was unionized after his tenure but was unsure exactly when.

“They no longer serve at the pleasure of the mayor. They’re protected by the union,” said Fitch. “They just can’t be dismissed by the mayor.” As union members, they are also eligible for overtime and stipend pay.

Minority Rule

The Town Charter guarantees two minority seats on the Council and three on the Board of Education, despite vote tallies. Currently those are the only seats held by Republicans. Gambardella said he’d like to revisit that provision to perhaps up the number of guaranteed seats. Fitch said he’s not opposed to looking at it.

“We’d have to change the rules on political subdivisions. How would that work? One possibility would be five [Council] districts” instead of the nine, he said. And each party could put up two candidates per district in the general election.

But, Fitch warned, “Be careful what you wish for. They could lose the set-aside seats. I think minority representation is pretty important. I think opposing viewpoints are healthy. [But] that system has been perverted recently. Republicans really campaign against each other.”

In last year's election, the Republican Party only put up two candidates for the BOE instead of the usual four, which guaranteed seats for both Ed Sullivan and Austin Cesare, since there is only one other Republican on the Board, Lynn Campo. “That’s not necessarily good democracy. It actually gives people less choices instead of more choices,” said Fitch.

Messages left for Wetmore yesterday were not returned.

Teen Arrested in Garage

From Capt. Ron Smith:

On Nov. 27, Hamden police obtained information that a burglary was going to be committed at 120 Fans Rock. Several officers subsequently conducted a sting operation at the location.

Shortly after setting up surveillance, a subject approached the garage, opened the door and entered. The subject was using a cigarette lighter to illuminate the garage. As the subject approached a 2004 Honda dirt bike, he was arrested by officers who were inside the garage.

A 16-year-old Hamden resident was charged with burglary in the third degree and criminal trespass in the second degree. The juvenile, who was detained at police headquarters on a $500 bond, is scheduled to appear in court on Dec. 5.

Officer William Onofrio conducted the investigation.

November 28, 2006


Despite second sales pitch, Council still not interested in bonding pension fund

By Sharon Bass

When Mayor Craig Henrici wants something -- despite how unpopular it is -- he’s shown the town in his first 12 months in office that he’ll fight till the bitter end. He spent three months earlier this year tenaciously trying to get approval for his first choice for a new fire chief. Reluctantly, he gave up.

These days he’s hell bent on borrowing tens of millions of dollars to feed the fairly emaciated retirement account (it’s just 29 percent funded, according to actuaries). He needs Legislative Council approval and if last night’s informational meeting was any indicator, it looks like Henrici may be barking up the wrong tree for the wrong thing.

With the exception of Councilman Ron Gambardella, the others feel putting the town into a 30-year debt on something as iffy as investing in the stock market is not a sound idea.

“I’m still against it,” said Councilwoman Carol Noble. “I can’t see borrowing money to pay money you owe.” Last month, she said she’d entertain the idea because the state treasurer wants to borrow $5 billion for the teachers’ pension fund. But Noble now said she doubts the General Assembly will go for it and it’s a bad idea.

“I much prefer the slow and steady approach as opposed to the pension bonding,” said Councilman Curt Leng. “It’s more prudent because even the financial advisers agreed we’d meet our annual pension obligation in two to 2.5 years.”

“If I had to vote right now, I’d vote no,” said Councilwoman Betty Wetmore. “We’re taking a big risk.”

So why the push for pension obligation bonds (POBs)?

No one could give a convincing argument. Not the mayor, not Finance Director Mike Betz, not even the financial pros who put on their second sales show in Council Chambers Monday evening.

Their premise is that by borrowing $85 million in POBs and then investing them in the stock market, bonding agencies and short-term money markets (CDs, for instance), Hamden would beef up the account to 60 percent full and could save $55 million over a 30-year term. Could is the operative word.

“Unfortunately, the market has its ups and downs and I can’t predict if we put money in the market today that in 10 years it would be making money,” said Tom Madigan of Wachovia Securities, which was hired last Wednesday as the Retirement Board’s new financial advisor, replacing UBS.

If the investments don’t produce a good return -- 8 percent is the goal -- the town is still on the hook to pay off the $85 million as well as make annual pension fund infusions as stipulated by state law, despite what that could do to the mil rate. Even with POBs, infusions must be made but Madigan speculated they would be smaller. However, debt service payments would increase, cutting into the savings. According to a chart devised by UBS, from 2008-2012, it would cost just over $1 billion for debt service and pension infusions if the town keeps funding the account without POBs. With $85 million of POBs, it would ring in at just under $1 billion.

“This is to help with the budget over the next two or three years,” said Madigan.

Wachovia was chosen from a pool of five applicants to run the pension fund, Betz said yesterday afternoon. CitiGroup, Merrill Lynch, UBS and Mass Mutual also vied for the job. UBS still has a hand in the fund as the underwriter.

“I thought a change was in order,” said Henrici. “Wachovia has the most experience with POB bonds and represents more municipalities than anyone else we interviewed.” He said if not $85 million, at least $45 million should be borrowed. Actuaries say the pension account needs $250 million to be fully funded; it currently has about $82 million with a $15 million yearly payout to retirees.

The strategy is to borrow the dough at 6 percent interest and receive 8 percent in investment income on it, said Madigan and Mike McKinnon of IBIC, a financial advisor for Hamden.

“It’s been our recommendation to do the [$85 million] and the restructuring [of the pension account],” McKinnon told the 15 local legislators.

“The glory days of doing 8 percent are behind us,” said Councilman Jim Pascarella. “What school of thought is being utilized that in 30 years we will have an 8 percent return? What economic theory?”

“We’re borrowing money to put in the investment fund and that money will always be at risk,” said Council President Al Gorman.

“I can’t predict which area of the market is going to do the best,” said Madigan. “If I could, I’d be sitting on a beach somewhere.” He called the plan “conservative.”

Pascarella begged to disagree. “Borrowing money to invest is not conservative at all,” he said. “It’s high risk. On a personal level, I’m quite queasy.”

Actuaries suggest Hamden put $16 million into the retirement account next fiscal year. This year $9 million was budgeted; in 2005, $6 million; 2004 $3 million; and before that very little to nothing. The alternative to putting Hamden further into debt is to continue with the so-called “Amento Plan” (named after former Mayor Carl Amento) -- $3 million more each year. Leng said after three more years of Amento financing, “the money we’d put in would be in excess of what we’d pay out.”

Make it the Law

Leng, Noble and Pascarella said instead of increasing the town’s debt via POBs, they’d like to create an ordinance mandating the town to put a prescribed amount into the retirement account. “It would say the pension has to be funded,” said Noble. So there would be no more anemic contributions.

“I’m against [POBs] more so than I was before,” Councilman John Flanagan said after the meeting. “I don’t think you should be dealing with junk bonds. I’d rather not roll the dice.”

The Finance Committee, headed by Leng, was also asked last night to approve an additional $2 million to purchase the Dadio Farm, for a total of $6.5 million. The item sailed through. A fire station and possible ambulance service are slated for the property, and the town hopes to sell $1 million or more of the land to the abutting industrial park.

Christmas Comes Early to HFD

Council voices concern

By Sharon Bass

The Legislative Council thanked Fire Chief David Berardesca for making a policy that forbids the fire marshal from accepting gifts from places he’s inspecting.

“I appreciate you putting that policy into place,” Councilman Curt Leng told the chief at last night’s committee meetings.

Actually, Berardesca didn’t make the policy. He said he’s just enforcing it. Two items on the Public Safety Committee agenda asked for approval of gifts for the Fire Department. Home Depot donated a refrigerator and a $125 gift card to the department and Fairfield Residential, owner of the Broadmoor apartment complex on Mix Avenue, offered $20,000 and another $10,000 to the police.

“That was very nice of you. I’m just concerned with the large amount of the donation,” Councilwoman Betty Wetmore said to Bob Doolittle, project manager for Fairfield.

“It’s money that will be well spent for training,” said Berardesca.

“So you’re comfortable accepting this donation?” said Wetmore, voicing concern about a perceived conflict of interest.

“Yes,” said the chief.

Doolittle said Acting Fire Marshal Brian Badamo found a “substantial” number of needed upgrades in his apartment buildings and his firm is in the midst of making the improvements.

Councilwoman Kath Schomaker suggested holding off on the 20 grand until the work is completed.

“Sure,” said Berardesca. “That’s not a problem at all.”

Doolittle said his company owns five apartment complexes in Connecticut, and Hamden is the only town to be offered a monetary donation. “Fairfield wants to care about the community,” he said.

Councilman Bob Westervelt, a retired fire marshal, said Schomaker’s idea wouldn’t achieve its purpose since the marshal makes yearly inspections. “It won’t matter if the money is held,” he said.

“Just because we’re Democrats doesn’t mean we have to question corporations,” piped in Councilman John Flanagan, eager to accept the 20 grand.

But Councilman Curt Leng disagreed with Flanagan’s take on the matter. “I think it was a question of ethics,” Leng said.

Wetmore said she had “complete confidence in the fire chief” but asked Doolittle why the Fire Department is getting twice as much as the police. He said fire services are needed more at Broadmoor, with its six-story buildings made of wood with no sprinkler systems.

The committee voted unanimously to accept the loot. Afterwards, Doolittle said he had approached Badamo about the monetary gift while the acting marshal was inspecting his property.

“The thing I told Brian is that any time someone wants to donate anything, to give them the chief’s [business] card,” said Berardesca.

He said the $20K would be spent on three Toughbooks, computers for fire vehicles; a hose tester; an LCD projector for training; and a command cabinet for staff vehicles.

Mather Street Man Busted

From Capt. Ron Smith:

On Nov. 25, the police Street Interdiction Team executed a search and seizure warrant at 365 Mather St., Unit 192. Officers had earlier conducted an investigation into the sale and distribution of marijuana from this location.

Police seized 70.6 grams of marijuana, 3.6 grams of cocaine, .8 gram of crack cocaine, two digital scales and $1,000.

Theotis Leonard, 20, of the above residence, was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana, possession of marijuana with the intent to sell, possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of narcotics. Leonard was detained at police headquarters on a $25,000 bond.

November 27, 2006

Smith Reports

Cops Get 13 Grams

On Nov. 22, members of the Street Interdiction Team approached a suspicious motor vehicle that was parked in the middle of Dix Street, with its lights off.

Officers observed crack cocaine inside of the vehicle. Police subsequently asked the operator to exit the vehicle. Thirteen grams of cocaine with an estimated street value of $700 were recovered.

Rodney Tilley, 48, of 64 Burke St., Hamden, was arrested and charged with possession of narcotics, possession of narcotics with intent to sell, possession of narcotics with intent to sell within 1,500 feet of a school and a parking violation. He was detained on a $20,000 bond and is scheduled to appear in Meriden Superior Court on Dec. 5.

Holiday Booze Patrol

Watch out. Next month, Hamden police will conduct sobriety checkpoints and driving-under-the-influence patrols. Locations vary and were not provided. But dates were: Dec.1, 7, 12, 16, 21, 23, 28, 29 and 31. Police hope neighboring communities will join in.

The program, "2006 Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year's DUI Enforcement," is funded by the Connecticut Department of Transportation. The goal is to spread public awareness about the dangers of drinking and driving, along with making the streets of Hamden and surrounding areas safer by arresting folks who are driving intoxicated.

Information provided by Hamden police Capt. Ron Smith.

November 21, 2006

Municipal Medicine

By Sharon Bass

For as long as Hamden’s agent of record can recall the town has been, in essence, its own health insurer. It’s called being self-insured.

What exactly does that mean? And why does Hamden, along with most other sizeable communities across the nation, go that route?

Lew Panzo, the agent of record, explains.

Instead of paying an HMO a huge monthly premium to fully insure municipal and school employees -- taking the so-called health jargon “risk” -- Hamden takes the risk and pays Anthem a relatively small sum to administer its self-insured plan. The town pays the actual bills.

It’s cheaper, said Panzo. About $6 million to $8 million cheaper a year.

“Let me tell you what the biggest benefit is. When you are fully insured you have a set fee every month,” he said. “When you’re self-insured all you pay are the fixed costs and what the claims are.” So the town saves money on healthy employees because they don’t rack up hefty medical bills.

Hamden currently pays Anthem, the world’s largest HMO, $14.30 per month per employee to run the plan. If Anthem fully insured the town’s roughly 2,000 employees and retirees, it would cost $574.14 a month for each body and more to include a spouse ($1,227) or a family ($1,513). While the “savings” look phenomenal and are somewhat realized, remember who’s paying for doctor and hospital visits, prescription drugs and other health care.

Last year, Hamden dished out $22 million -- $17.1 million in medical claims; $4.5 million for prescriptions; $1.4 million for dental, said Panzo. According to the recently approved union health contract, all employees pay a small co-pay while the town is on the hook for the bulk of the bill.

Also with the new health-care agreement, town and school workers now pay an average of 10 percent of their monthly premium, which includes Anthem’s administrative fee plus the projected claims the town will shoulder.

“People think there’s some catch somewhere. How can we save so much money?” said Panzo, president of Connecticut Health Insurance Associates (formerly Associated Plan Administrators) on Whitney Avenue. “It’s because you’re taking the risk. When you get to large groups like this, it’s a no-brainer.”

Hamden could lose out if a larger number of employees than projected gets close to the "stop-loss" threshold. But Panzo said that's unlikely.

Stop Loss?

In addition to the $14.30 premium for Anthem to do the paperwork, there’s another $24.81 charge per employee for stop-loss insurance. That kicks in when an employee’s medical bills exceed a certain amount and the town is then no longer responsible. Anthem is.

Hamden just raised that ceiling from $150,000 to $175,000, which reduced the monthly stop-loss premium, said Panzo, but overall doesn’t reduce the town’s financial burden since the threshold is up 25 grand before Anthem starts paying. It’s a break-even deal, he said.

Five to six employees went over the $150,000 cap last fiscal year. When that happens, Anthem takes on all the risk -- covers 100 percent of the tab.

So if there’s a $2 million claim, for instance, the town pays just $175,000.

Town retirees get the same health care deal until some reach 65. Then Medicare becomes their primary payer and Hamden foots supplemental coverage, which is cheaper than the self-insured rate.

However, police, firefighters and teachers aren’t eligible for Medicare because they don’t pay into Social Security. When they turn 65, their health benefits stay the same as their active counterparts', except family members are no longer covered, Panzo said.

When an employee’s medical tab gets to $50,000, Anthem sends Panzo a claim report. “And we watch them closely. There’s nothing you can do about the claims but we know what we’re dealing with,” he said.

“People think we do nothing all month. I have a person who I have full time on this. She spends a third of her day on the Hamden account. And I spend a quarter of the day on it,” said Panzo, who’s also East Haven’s agent of record.

November 17, 2006

Dadio Deal, $6.5M

The Putnam Avenue farm. File photo

By Sharon Bass

That Texas developer that wanted to put 284 apartments on the Dadio Farm agreed Wednesday to sell the Putnam Avenue parcel to Hamden for $6.5 million. Just last month, the town gave New Haven Superior Court $4.9 million to take the land by eminent domain. And JPI Apartment Development sued. (It was erroneously reported in the HDN that the town already owned the farm.)

But now the parties have reached a settlement the mayor thinks will stick. While $6.5 million is a big chunk of change, especially for Hamden, wisdom is there will be significant long-term savings. Also, by purchasing the 11.8 unkempt acres, the town is free to sell some of it to the adjacent business park. The state forbids municipalities to sell property it acquired via eminent domain.

“It’s a win-win situation,” said Mayor Craig Henrici. “The lawsuits are going to be withdrawn and the development plan is going away.” During negotiations with JPI, he said the lowest demand was $7.2M.

“This is good because the net price after we subdivide the property and sell off the lots might be less than what we’d have had to pay had the eminent domain proceeding went to judgment,” he said.

The objection to the apartment complex was the municipal cost of having 284 new families, some with school-aged children. Besides burdening an already-bulging school system, it would impact police, fire and other town services.

The Legislative Council must OK the bonding. On Sept. 4, it approved $4.9 million to acquire the farm by eminent domain. On Nov. 27, President Al Gorman said he expects to have the additional bonding request, roughly $1.5 million, on the agenda.

“I think it’s a good deal,” he said. “It seems like a lot of money all at once. But taking this property serves a public service. I don’t want to drag our feet on this. Long term, we would lose on this if we don’t buy it.”

The administration’s plan for the property calls for a firehouse to replace the dilapidated one on Circular Avenue, possibly an ambulance service and to sell something like $1.5 million of the farm to the Hamden Industrial Park.

Technically, the town’s eminent domain lawsuit and JPI’s suit are still active. Henrici said they will be withdrawn if the deal is “consummated by the end of the year.”

November 15, 2006

‘Gravel Pit’ for Sale, $1.25M

Sunwood offers to sell that “gorgeous piece of property” to the town

By Sharon Bass

A very pretty wooded area up north, with the graceful Jepp Brook babbling through it, may stay that way in perpetuity. It all depends on whether the town, environmental groups, the state and other entities can collectively cough up $1.25 million.

Mayor Craig Henrici sounded cautiously optimistic about it yesterday. Hamden already has $550,000 in state and local open space money available to buy 4280 Whitney and the rear of 4246 Whitney, which Sunwood Development wanted to mine for gravel. After two long and tense public hearings in October -- neighbors and environmental activists showed up in droves to protest the gravel pit operation before Planning & Zoning -- on Nov. 1, the developer withdrew his application but vowed to return with the same or another idea for the 40 acres of virgin land.

“I think they’ve realized that an approval of a mining operation would be very, very difficult to obtain,” said Henrici.

Town Planner Leslie Creane said the property has wetlands and steep slopes and so much of the 40 acres is not developable. Sunwood was also toying with building homes there. “I think that preserving open spaces is important,” she said.

The mayor’s cautious optimism is well justified. Nearly half the money is already secured, but there’s still the bigger half to get. And the developer is giving the town 30 days, starting Nov.14, to respond.

A letter from Sunwood’s attorney, Bernie Pellegrino of New Haven, offering to sell the land was mailed to Henrici, the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Regional Water Authority, the Hamden Natural Resources & Open Space Commission, the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, the West Woods Neighborhood Association and the newly created Mt. Carmel Environmental Trust. Henrici said he received the letter yesterday but knew about the offer two weeks ago.

He said he’s talked with the RWA about the purchase -- and ultimate salvation of the wooded land -- and said he plans to discuss it with state Sen. Martin Looney (D-New Haven, Hamden) and state Rep. Brendan Sharkey (D-Hamden) as well as Curt Johnson, a lawyer for the environment fund. If the property is purchased, the mayor said it’s uncertain if the Hamden Land Conservation Trust or the town will be the owner. Either way, the deed would include a conservation easement, forever barring development.

“There’s always interest [in buying the land], it’s just a question of how much they’re interested,” said Henrici, in response to being asked if he thinks the money will be raised.

Pellegrino said since many people expressed desire to buy the property as open space, the owner, Ruth Benedict of Juniper Associates in Arizona, decided to put it up for sale. Eleven years ago, Benedict first tried to turn her land into a gravel pit but the town turned her down. And as Creane said, it’s not a highly desirable parcel to develop. There’s also a power line that runs over the land, which some deem unsafe to live near.

If the town can’t make a commitment within the timeframe, Pellegrino said, “They’ll go back to explore other development options. They’re kind of holding the status quo right to see if there are any offers.”

Bob Wiedenmann of Sunwood said the $1.25 million would go to Benedict and he would be reimbursed for expenses incurred in trying to move forward the mining operation.

Asked how the $1.25 million figure was derived, he said, “We looked at the value of the gravel removed, minus the mining cost. We felt this was a realistic number to offer the town and environmental groups. We could live with that number. We certainly don’t expect to have a contract signed with a closing in 30 days, but feedback from groups if they think this is doable.”

If it’s not doable, Wiedenmann said he would likely submit another gravel application “or pursue a residential development, a cluster-type development to minimize the impact on the wetlands. My goal would be to develop 10 acres, but that’s a conceptual idea at this point.” However, he said he’s aware it would probably draw much community objection as the gravel pit did.

“From my perspective, I don’t enjoy aggravating the neighbors and the commissions so from that standpoint it’s probably a simpler process to [sell it],” said Wiedenmann. “There’s no downside to that to anyone, in my mind.

“But I think people understand that these property owners have the right to utilize their land,” he said. “I would hope [the town] could [buy it]. It would make everyone happy. It’s a gorgeous piece of property.”

November 14, 2006

What a Dump

Public Works' Dave Lockery and John Busca play with a hallway pass found among the messes left behind.

The low-down on the old middle school, poor thing

Story, photos and videos by Sharon Bass

Perhaps no one is angrier about the sorry state of the former school on Newhall Street than Dave Lockery. He’s the superintendent of sanitation and buildings for Public Works and has a few words to say about the way the Board of Education maintained the school.

“The heat works but it’s uncontrollable. So the heat just runs.” The thermostat is broken.

“The roof leaks like a sieve on the third floor and in the gym.”

Inside the old middle school's control room, Dave Lockery of Public Works explains why the heat won't shut off.

“Some windows in classrooms can’t be shut.”

“Ten to 15 windows are broken.”

“Ceiling tiles on the third floor have fallen down.”

”One of the heating boilers is broken and another is patched up.”

“Both elevators didn’t work and weren’t up to code.” (They were fixed right before the Artspace show last month.)

Lockery uttered a few more words.

“It will cost a quarter-million dollars to fix the roof.”

“It will cost $50,000 for heating coils.”

“It will cost $2,000-$3,000 to replace the [broken] windows.”

And it will take the Public Works crew endless hours making repairs and cleaning, cleaning and cleaning.

“I don’t know how kids went to school here,” said PW Director John Busca. “The Board of Ed realized five years ago they were going to move and didn’t care about it and left it in deplorable condition. We’re kind of upset. There’s a lot of work to do here.”

Messages left for Mark Albanese, school facilities director, were not returned. Assistant Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez said, “I have no comment.”

Lockery points to one of many water-damaged ceilings.

The old middle school closed last June. On Oct. 18, the town got custody of the building since it’s no longer used as a school. Town officials say the BOE did not adequately maintain the school and it’s falling apart. Busca said he is sending a letter to the Board asking for money from its pocketbook to go towards the repair bills.

But Mayor Craig Henrici said the school department can't be forced to help pay, and he doesn't expect it to voluntarily fork over anything.

“It doesn’t appear that maintenance was central office’s strong suit,” the mayor said. “I’d be thrilled but very surprised if we saw a dollar from the Board of Ed. There are ways of recouping money from the Board of Education as we go forward with next year’s budget season.”

Meanwhile, the town will take on the cost and responsibility to right the wrongs at the middle school. “It’s the town’s building now and we’re going to take care of it and make it a useful facility again,” said Henrici.

Busca talks about the pile of stuff the BOE left in the "penthouse," or fourth floor.

Pre-existing Condition

The school has been in bad shape for at least eight years, said Councilman Curt Leng. It was eight years ago when he went on a tour of the building with then-Mayor Barbara DeNicola, who was considering renovations.

“We got a tour from the principal at the time and we were appalled by the condition,” he said. “And it was dirty.” The air inside was stagnant as many windows had to be kept closed because they were defective, Leng said. The hallways and stair railways were covered with graffiti and other marks of vandalism.

“The cafeteria was very, very dark. And there were things that could have been improved if [the BOE] had a maintenance schedule. It’s been very, very poor,” said Leng.

For the last six or so years, the Legislative Council has discussed combining Public Works, Parks & Rec and the BOE maintenance operation. But the idea has not moved forward yet because there have to be union negotiations. “Honestly, I think it’s a good idea because there’s replication of duties and equipment” among the three departments, he said.

The school is about 50 years old and was basically rebuilt after the 1989 tornado. “And it wasn’t bad,” said Barbara DeNicola. “But it wasn’t maintained. The Democratic Board of Education and the Council, they just didn’t maintain the buildings.”

She said she wanted to allocate $1.5 million from the ’99-’00 budget, her last, for improvements on the middle school but the Council nixed it.

Leng was on the Council then and was against the $1.5 million. He said it was too skimpy.

“Democrats on the Council, Carl [Amento], Carol [Noble], Henry [Candido] and myself wanted to do more than make minor renovations as DeNicola proposed,” he said.

Turned out it didn’t matter what the amount should have been. The next year, under the new Amento Administration, renovations were going to be made. Then the initial soil borings from the school property came back with bad news. The land is contaminated.

November 9, 2006

More Pension Funk

Finance Director Betz with Mayor Henrici. File Photo

By Sharon Bass

The town pension hole just got a little deeper. About $26 million so. The fund is reportedly just 29 percent full.

At Wednesday’s Retirement Board meeting, the actuary said as of July 1, the account is under funded by $196 million -- not the preliminarily announced $170 million. There’s $81 million in the account, and the yearly payout to retirees has recently risen from $13 million to $15 million.

“The POBs have to come to the forefront,” said Mayor Craig Henrici. POBs are pension obligation bonds. The administration now plans to push even harder to get Legislative Council approval to bond up to $85 million to help fill the $196 million hole. It’s either that or raise the mil rate, the mayor said.

“If you want to keep the retirement plan in business, those are the only two options. And I’m not raising taxes anymore,” he said.

The administration has so far held one public meeting with the Council about bonding the pension account, and expects to have another either later this month or next, said Finance Director Mike Betz.

When the POB idea was first reported, Council Democrats balked while Republican Ron Gambardella spoke in favor of it. However, the balking seems to have died down some.

“Certainly I am not in favor of putting the town deeper into debt, especially for such a long period of time and especially not for something like the pension,” said Democratic Councilwoman Carol Noble. “However, if they make a presentation and can come up with some better reasons for moving forward with this particular item, I’m might change my mind. Why is that?”

As a member of the New Haven County Retired Teachers Association, Noble said she recently attended a meeting in which State Treasurer Denise Nappier talked about the teachers fund being $5 billion under-funded.

“Denise likes to have things balanced, so she examined all this and is looking to go into the same direction as POBs,” said Noble. “It makes you look twice at what we are doing in Hamden. If the treasurer is looking to do this at the state level …”

But Noble said before she’d vote for issuing POBs, she wants the town to hire a new investment advisor. She said the current investors are not doing a good job.

Former Mayor Lillian Clayman, who moved last year from Hamden to Long Island, said she’s aware some think she is somehow involved in the bonding proposal because she is a financial advisor, a longtime friend of Mayor Craig Henrici and periodically visits Town Hall to sell 457s (private retirement accounts) to employees. But Clayman said she hasn’t been part of the POB discussion and doesn’t plan to.

“I’m not going to offer opinions and nobody has asked me. It’s not my job,” she said. “My job is to work with individuals, not with the town. It wouldn’t be ethical for me to do that.”

Can't Pay the Tab

Henrici said the town’s actuary recommends putting $16 million into the pension account next year. In this budget, the contribution was $9 million while the recommendation was $14 million.

Betz said he was surprised the hole had grown so much.  “I thought it would go up but I didn’t think it would go up $30 million in two years,” he said. The last pension fund evaluation was in 2004. The finance director said the retirement account is in trouble because it has been under funded and more town workers have retired than expected.

However, the numbers are still guesswork based on research and data. There’s no way to flawlessly predict what will happen that would affect the pension fund. “There are professionals doing the what-ifs,” said Betz, “using assumptions based on data like mortality tables.”

Asked if he thinks POBs are the right way to go, Betz said, “Obviously I’m part of the team looking at it. It’s one way to go. The town is in a tough spot. There’s no really easy solution.”

Once municipalities issue POBs, they can no longer decide how much to feed their pension accounts. State law mandates they infuse the amount recommended by an actuary, despite what that would do to the tax rate.

“And there’s always going to be a hole,” said Betz.

“I hate the concept of bonding the pension. It may be a necessary evil,” said Councilman Curt Leng. He said if Hamden goes ahead with the bonding and has to meet the actuary’s recommendations for annual contributions, it could mean a jump of 3 mils to 4 mils in one year.

Two weeks ago, Leng said he began talking with state Rep. Brendan Sharkey (D-Hamden) about introducing legislation next session to change that tenet of the bonding law. “I would be in favor of doing a smaller pension bonding, say 50 percent perhaps, and continue increasing our contributions, if the law is changed,” said Leng. “Without that law [change], I’m very hesitant to go down that road.”

If the Council votes to bond the retirement account, the next step is getting state approval. “Then we’re free to enter the market,” said Betz. “By then there will be an official statement about the town. There will be an investment plan on how to best allocate the new funds per the statutory guidelines that allow us to do this."

November 7, 2006

Pink Slips?

Some town commissions could get the ax

By Sharon Bass

During Mayor Carl Amento’s three terms, he created quite a few commissions. The purpose was to give different factions of the community a voice in town government.

“That’s a laudable idea,” said Council President Al Gorman. “On the other hand, we do have a cost factor where all these commissions require a clerk. Maybe we could be better served with combining some of these commissions.”

So the town is now looking to cut back. Merge some commissions. Save a few tax dollars. Reduce redundancy.

According to the Town Clerk’s Office, there are 30 commissions, many just advisory. They need Legislative Council approval to make rules and policy, unlike commissions such as Planning & Zoning, Inland Wetlands & Watercourses, Fire and Police that are self-governing.

With each commission comes a paid clerk to take the minutes. Most are also town employees. Since meetings are almost always held after work hours, Mayor Craig Henrici said there’s no double-dipping going on. But the $75-per-monthly-meeting charge adds up. A few clerks make $100-$125 and one gets 50 bucks.

Over the last few months, Gorman and the mayor have been discussing how to pare down without lessening public input.

“There’s no doubt my predecessor, an inclusionist, created a plethora of advisory commissions,” said Henrici. “I’m appreciative to everyone who volunteers their time, but we need to determine where there’s overlap.”

A message left for Amento yesterday was not returned. And neither Henrici nor Gorman knew how many commissions the former mayor created.

Some began as all-volunteer efforts with no paid clerk and then evolved into full-fledged commissions, said Gorman, like Solid Waste & Recycling. One thought being tossed around is to combine Solid Waste with the Clean & Green, Natural Resources & Open Space and Energy Use & Climate Change commissions, requiring one instead of four clerks -- a monthly savings of $225.

“The idea is to make it a little more efficient,” said Gorman. If some commissions are combined, the Council would create the merged successor.

Most of the clerks’ fees come out of the Town Clerk’s budget, with a few paid by other town departments.

Fire Alarms Set Off Flanagan's Fuse

File photo.

By Sharon Bass

Three Hamden elementary schools need new fire alarm systems. It’s unknown how much they’ll cost but the Legislative Council was asked to approve up to $1.2 million in bonding.

To which Councilman John Flanagan blew a gasket.

“I will be voting against this because it’s not based on” solid figures, he said at last night’s meeting. He also objected to using a vendor currently working in the Hamden school system instead of putting the job out to bid.

“It’s the old cry of expediency. We have a contractor on site, so let’s use him,” said Flanagan. “That’s how the taxpayers got burned during the last administration.”

Because of new state fire-safety codes, the alarms at West Woods, Ridge Hill and Shepherd Glen need updating, said Fire Chief David Berardesca. The chosen vendor, SimplexGrinnell of Berlin, outfitted the new middle school with fire systems, he said.

Finance Director Mike Betz said SimplexGrinnell has already inspected the three schools and drawn up specs. The estimate is over $1 million, but the vendor has promised to slice off $150,000, he said. Forty percent of the cost would need bonding; the remainder would come out of the general fund but is state reimbursable.

Chief Administrative Officer Scott Jackson said if put out to bid it would cost $140,000 to have a consultant create new specs and could take nine months to complete the job. Councilman Curt Leng said those were compelling reasons to use the Berlin contractor.

After a battery of questions was posed to Jackson and Betz, Flanagan called out, “Point of order! I am tired of constantly coming to Council meetings and having it conducted as committee meetings.”

Leng argued it was necessary to get the details before voting. He also argued that the fire devices needed to be installed as soon as possible to prevent a lawsuit should someone get injured due to the old alarm system. “If the fire marshal makes a recommendation and it’s not followed, we could get sued,” he said.

But Flanagan stuck to his guns. “We shouldn’t be bonding something we don’t have a price on,” he said. “It’s a violation of our bidding procedures.”

Councilwoman Betty Wetmore changed the course of conversation -- and sentiment -- for a moment when she asked if the children at those schools are at risk.

“No,” said Jackson.

“This will pass but I’m going to vote against it,” Flanagan again vowed. And it passed 13-1. Councilman Mike Germano was absent.

Jackson Rattles Off Stats

In his report to the Council, Jackson said over the past month, the Fire Department’s response time decreased by one minute to five minutes, four seconds; firefighters clocked 436 hours of training; and the fire marshal inspected 59 businesses and six student houses. The tax office collected $122,028 in delinquent taxes in the last 30 days, and $717,306 in current taxes.

November 2, 2006

Temporary Sign of Relief

Jepp Brook runs through it. Photo/Sharon Bass

Sunwood rescinds its plan to mine gravel in northern Hamden, but still intends to develop the land

By Sharon Bass

After two lengthy public hearings -- heavily peppered with opposition from every corner except the developer’s -- on a proposed mining operation in woods off upper Whitney Avenue, the deal is off.

For now. Wallingford-based Sunwood Development withdrew its application Wednesday to mine gravel but promises to forge ahead with a completely different or very similar plan for the 40-plus acres of untouched land.

“We’re looking at everything at this point,” said Bob Wiedenmann, president of Sunwood, including a modified gravel plan “or a better presentation of our existing plan.” Or a housing development.

Something, he said, because “I know the owners are not going to let the land sit there for another 20 years.” The owner, Ruth Benedict, doing business as Juniper Associates in Green Valley, Ariz., was turned down in 1995 for a similar gravel-mining operation.

And in the 1980s, an application for a housing subdivision on the wooded property at 4280 Whitney and the rear of 4246 Whitney was withdrawn “because of the lack of marketability because of the potential danger of living with a power line that traverses the property,” said Assistant Town Planner Dan Kops.

“We’d love to see it preserved as open space,” he said.

That’s a near unanimous sentiment. While the town and environmental groups are looking into that possibility, Wiedenmann said it’s low on the list. “We’d certainly be open to discussion, but it’s not a strong likelihood,” he said. 

Still, there was relief yesterday when Sunwood announced its decision to rescind plans to mine 254,000 cubic yards of sand and gravel over a two-year period. People said it would create too much traffic and noise with trucks going in and out of the quiet residential neighborhood every four minutes. They also worried it would contaminate the town’s drinking supply as Jepp and Willow brooks traverse the land and eventually empty into Lake Whitney.

“It was so amazingly inappropriate,” said Peter Schwartz of Still Hill Road, who attended the Planning & Zoning Commission hearings last month. A third was scheduled for tonight.

“The process the commission carried out really impressed me. They asked good questions, tough questions,” he said. “I was also impressed with the community. All of us. The ability to organize. This was just the wrong place. You don’t go into a rustic, residential community to [mine]. It really makes me believe that democracy is alive and well in Hamden.”

Town Planner Leslie Creane said scrapping the application was the prudent thing for the developer to do. She said the plan had “sufficient deficiencies and there were geo-technical concerns.”

“I’m certainly pleased with the results. It’s rare that you see a citizen’s group come together with such cohesiveness and articulate voice,” said New Haven attorney Keith Ainsworth, who was retained by the Mount Carmel Environmental Trust, an intervener of the mining proposal. “This is a win for the people of the state of Connecticut. That land next to the Farmington Canal Trail is important ecologically and aesthetically.”

Mayor Craig Henrici also expressed relief yesterday. “The administration is very appreciative to the public outcry and participation in the process,” he said. “I’m relieved that the mining operation is going away. It just wouldn’t have worked. We’re looking at this property along with other properties in northern Hamden to purchase as open space.”

Four years ago, the town received a $1.1 million open-space land acquisition grant from the state. A chunk of it has already been spent. According to the Assessor’s Office, 4280 Whitney with 36.1 acres is assessed at $147,000; and 4246 (rear) Whitney with 4.5 acres at $117,810. Assessments are 70 percent of the market value, but Benedict could ask for much more than another 30 percent if the town or another entity wants to buy it.

It Will be Something

“[Sunwood] could come back with an application every month for the next 10 years,” said Ainsworth. “In fact, even if they were denied, they could apply again. There is no limit under the law. However, I think they have a clear indication of what would happen to any application that even remotely resembled this one. I think the most telling aspect of it was they had no friends. No one said this was a good idea and supported it. No one spoke in favor.”

Wiedenmann said the next application could be for either single-family or clustered housing. The power line “would have some affect on the value of the houses. We would cluster it as far away as possible,” he said. In Cheshire, there’s a subdivision with power lines running through it, he said, “and I’m sure there are many others around the state.”

However, a modified mining application or better presentation of the one that was just withdrawn also remains a possibility.

“It became pretty clear after the last [P&Z] meeting, we were doing a poor job of communicating what we were trying to do,” Wiedenmann said. “It was pretty likely from our perspective that we weren’t going to get an approval. We saw the handwriting on the wall. I got the impression that people thought it would look like an old coalmine. I think there were a lot of pieces of the puzzle that weren’t explained properly.”

If gravel mining is again pursued, he figured it would take one to two months to resubmit an application. For a residential development, it would take three to six months, and would need to first go before the Inland Wetlands & Watercourses Commission. A mining proposal wouldn’t have to because of a court decision last January that overturned that commission’s denial of the proposal upon appeal.

Fightin' Words

“If the developer comes back with a condo development, we’ll send that idea to the trash bin, too,” Ainsworth was quoted in a press release issued by his law practice Wednesday:

The release also notes: “Every organization not paid by Sunwood that commented on the proposal raised serious questions about it and, in most cases, flatly opposed the project, including: the Connecticut Department of Public Health, the Regional Water Authority, the King’s Mark Environmental Review Team, the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, Trout Unlimited, the Hamden Natural Resources and Open Space Commission, the Farmington Canal Rail-to-Trail Association, Hamden’s Farmington Canal Commission, Westwoods Neighborhood Association, the Hamden Historic Properties Commission, and the Mill River Watershed Association.”

To be continued. For sure.

November 1, 2006

2 Teens Nabbed in Firearm Theft

From Capt. Ron Smith:

On July 27, 2006, the Hamden Police Department began investigating the larceny of a firearm at a home in Whitneyville. Detectives obtained information that three subjects were involved in the theft, and subsequently prepared arrest warrant affidavits.

The three were just arrested. Two live in Hamden:

An 18-year-old Hamden resident, who was 17 when the crime was committed, was charged with theft of a firearm and conspiracy to commit theft of a firearm. He was detained at police headquarters on a $100,000 bond. A Nov. 14 court date was scheduled.

Another 18-year-old Hamden resident, who was also 17 when the crime was committed, was charged with theft of a firearm, conspiracy to commit theft of a firearm and carrying a gun without a permit. He was detained at police headquarters on a $100,000 bond and is due in court on Nov. 13.


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