In a special three-way joint RTM meeting Tuesday night, combinations of three committees -- ways and means, education and public services -- voted to recommend allowing the town to borrow money to cover nearly $4 million in upgrades in two major categories.
One was essential: no one on the RTM seriously questioned the need for an appropriation, requested by the Finance Department, to drastically upgrade the communications networks used by the police department, public works and sewage. As soon as the measure was introduced, a motion to approve and a second were rapidly fired off by Republicans Beth Bryan and Peter Black.
The 2011 FCC Narrowbanding Mandate requires public services (police, for example) to switch to communication equipment designed to a different frequency (called narrowband, as opposed to the old wideband -- think radio station frequencies) by January 1, 2013. The Branford Police Department wasn't ready. For that matter, several other town services weren't ready.
The original request presented was only for the police station, and would have run $1.25 million. But as the town looked at communications across a string of departments, they realized it was more than just the police department that was woefully out-of-date, according to town finance director Jim Finch. The town added upgrades to the additional departments to the request at a reduced rate Captain Geoffrey Morgan likened to a "buy-one-get-one special."
"It's an appropriate analogy to say that this is a little like being caught running a PC with Windows 95," Finch said. "And unfortunately, we're stuck with a large sum of money we need to comply."
Asked by RTM member Beth Bryan why the town hadn't planned for the eventuality, Finch admitted, "That's a good question. I was scratching my head for months about this."
The fact is, Finch said, it slipped the radar.
"This was really uncharacteristic of the town. This town is prudent in a lot things. We're prudent in pension fund management and proactive when it comes to managing health benefits ... But this is one that fell through the cracks."
The request from finance passed unanimously. "This is public safety," said Public Services RTM member Dennis Flanigan. "We can't afford to have police, fire, and public works not having the ability to communicate in a disaster."
Before the vote, Black addressed police and finance. "You guys are beating yourselves up pretty bad for this," Black said. "But you identified this, you came to us with a big presentation during budget time. i think you guys have done a good job identifying this, spreading it out, and bringing in the other departments. Good job, guys."
To cover the update, Finch says the town is envisioning selling one-year notes to be due in the summer of 2013. At that point, the town would issue long-term bonds.
RTM Faces Down Uncertainty on School Roof Funds
Black wasn't so positive when it came to approving funds to repair the roof of the Branford Hills school building, the second major item on the agenda for Ways & Means and Education.
"That building is possibly the most unloved building in town," he said. He indicated more than once he'd be happy to see it gone as soon as possible.
Repairs for the building were included in a $2.05 million request that also included the and school roofs and energy upgrades at Branford High School.
Branford Hills, mostly used for meeting and storage space, faces an uncertain future. Several groups use or have used the building's rooms on a near-daily basis, including Friends of the Library and . Pending the results of a evaluation commissioned by the town, it may be sold or even demolished. Despite its shaky future, RTM members were hesitant to let the roof's condition worsen in the event the town decided to keep the property.
"From a maintenance standpoint, I can't keep it up for the next five years," said Branford Schools Facilities Director Mark Deming. "History doesn't go back far enough for me to tell you how old that roof is." Deming said the roof needed the repair funds now to keep the building useable in the future.
"We're in a difficult situation here," said Ways and Means Chair Yvette Larrieu. "Are we throwing good money after bad if this place gets destroyed? Of course. But we're nowhere near knowing, and we can't neglect it. At first i was in favor of the cut Peter proposed."
(Black had offered an amendment that would have removed Branford Hills' roof repairs but kept the other schools' funds intact.)
"But sometimes you do have to throw good money after bad if you don't know," said Larrieu. "And we don't know."
The RTM voted to approve seeking bonds for repairs to all three roofs -- including Branford Hills. And Black cast the sole "No" vote.
The full RTM will vote June 13 on the measures, as well as a $35,000 appropriation, also passed Tuesday night, that would allow for a redesign of the Board of Education offices at 1111 Main St.