East Lyme to hold referendum on proposed policing facility
Published February 12. 2019 6:03PM
By Mary Biekert Day staff writer
East Lyme — Residents will have a final say at a referendum Feb. 20 as to whether East Lyme should move forward with a proposed $5 million public safety facility.
The vote comes three months after First Select Mark Nickerson announced a plan to purchase and renovate the $2,775,000 Honeywell office building at 277 W. Main St. to turn into a public safety facility.
Originally estimated to cost taxpayers nearly $6 million — a number that included both the building purchase and $3.2 million in renovations — the Board of Finance has since cut the town’s spending limit on that proposal to $5 million, approving instead $2.23 million for renovations at a January special meeting.
The 30,000-square-foot facility, which sits on 17 acres, would consolidate the town’s dispatch center, fire marshal’s office and emergency operations center — which currently are housed in Flanders — with the police station and would include an evidence room, an arms lockup room and storage, among other uses.
In his original proposal, Nickerson called for including holding cells at the facility. Whether those can now be built with a $5 million bonding limit — the estimated cost is upwards of $1 million — remains to be seen, Nickerson said in January. The town presently pays Waterford approximately $50,000 annually to use its holding cells, evidence lockup and vehicle storage, among other uses, and may continue to utilize the town’s holding cells services.
The need for a new policing facility has been a pressing issue for nearly two decades, Nickerson said in a phone interview Tuesday. In those years, the town has turned down two other proposals for policing facilities. In 2004, the Board of Finance shot down a $6.5 million proposal to build a facility at Camp Niantic, and in 2007 voters rejected a $14 million complex at referendum.
Nickerson, as well as policing staff, have described the present facilities on Main Street, which the town leases from Dominion Energy for $1 a year, as having “deplorable” conditions. Constant flooding and water leaks, as well as mildew and poor air quality, make working in the facility difficult for the town’s law enforcement staff, they’ve said.
The police force, with 23 full-time officers and one part-time officer, serves the town's 19,000 year-round residents, as well as a surge of seasonal visitors and residents in the summer.
Since November, town officials and taxpayers have spoken back and forth at length — through public forums, board and commission meetings, as well as over social media — about the proposal and whether it is fiscally, logistically and operationally feasible.
Some taxpayers have questioned the building's location and proximity to flood zones, its size, and whether the move is even necessary, among other concerns.
In particular, residents have expressed fears about how financing millions for the facility, almost two years after the town approved financing $38 million for elementary school renovations, could cause a burden to taxpayers.
Nickerson has held several public forums in recent months and has posted information about the proposal on the town’s website in an effort to allay those concerns.
Should residents pass the proposal, Nickerson said the town will need to complete remaining tests needed to purchase the property, including water and septic tests, for example, he said. After hiring an architect and builders, he said he hopes renovations can start as early as this summer. He said there may be opportunity to move the police force into the building before renovations are complete.
Nickerson also said he and the Board of Selectmen will quickly appoint a building committee to oversee the renovations and plans. Included on that committee will be three Board of Finance members, three selectmen, three police committee members, the chief of police and two civilians.
The town, according to a purchase and sales agreement signed with Honeywell, will close on the property no later than the end of May, should the referendum pass.
Should it not pass, Nickerson said, “It would be unfortunate. This town needs to do something for the police.”
“We would go back to the drawing board and would have to come up with another plan but it would likely be more expensive,” he said, explaining that the town would have to construct a new building costing an estimated $10 million to $12 million.
“You can’t have town employees, especially a police force, working in conditions like this. This is not only a great opportunity, this is a necessity,” Nickerson continued. “We’ve done as good a job as we can possibly getting all the information out to the public, and I’m confident our taxpayers will see the value in this opportunity.”
Some comments about our town budget in relation to the state’s budget crisis. March 2019
Our state’s economy continues to slide downward and Connecticut residents are increasingly paying the price. Our state government’s budget crisis dominates the headlines and creates anxiety and worry for all of us. It has put extreme pressure on families and small businesses across our state. It is far more expensive to live (and die) in Connecticut than ever before. And based on the state’s balance sheet, we have not yet hit our bottom.
Because of the state’s fiscal mess, these are tough days for municipalities too. We are caught between reductions in state aid, a mediocre business climate, and rising costs for goods and services. In our town’s budget, health care, liability insurance, energy costs, collective bargaining wages and associated benefits have all significantly out-paced the private sector’s cost of living. Containing costs on the municipal level has been a real challenge for most towns. I’m proud to say that East Lyme has been extremely successful thus far in weathering the storm.
BALANCE IS THE KEY:
East Lyme is a quality town. We all moved here and/or we choose to stay here because of the quality of life and the quality of our schools. Striking a balance between rising property taxes and maintaining the quality of our town is the key. Town leaders on the Boards of Selectmen and Finance as well as every town department head and team member are supremely focused on this mission. We must continue to work to keep our town as affordable as possible WITHOUT losing the quality of our education and town services. Already, we have created an atmosphere where that “equation” or “balance” plays into every single decision we make in our town...365 days a year. We don’t just consider these issues during budget season. Literally, the value of return of the tax money we spend (the ROI) is part of every conversation I have with every town employee and commission member throughout the year.
I delivered a ZERO PERCENT INCREASE in the town’s budget this year. We lost personnel through attrition and consolidation, and we were able to merge or eliminate some services that created new efficiencies. Needless to say, this is a bare bones budget. I’m also pleased that the Board of Education brought forth a no-nonsense budget to the table during the recent budget process. There is NO new programming, services or expansion of our town’s government. Most of our budget goes to labor and the benefits that are provided to our workforce. While we must continue to invest in materials, equipment, maintenance, roads, and other resources, we only do so only after an exhausting process of scrutinizing every detail and measuring each item’s value.
The entire town’s leadership---department heads, supervisors, commissioners and board members ---know that we are in survival mode right now. We are struggling to keep taxes and expenses as low as possible yet we are still trying to deliver the high quality of town services and programming that our residents have come to love and expect. I thank each and every member of our community for the support you give our town. I am always here for a conversation, a suggestion or comment. It’s an honor to serve you.
News, blogs, comments, and pictures from the past
(in no particular order)
Mark Nickerson - First Selectman
This offer may be too good for East Lyme to pass up
Published November 24. 2018 12:01AM | Updated November 24. 2018 9:13PM
By The Day Editorial Board
East Lyme’s first selectman and other town officials studying possible future homes for the local police force hope the third time’s the charm they need to convince residents to approve money to develop a consolidated public safety complex. Residents shot down public safety complex proposals in 2004 and 2007. Now town leaders are floating a new plan to buy a 30,000-square-foot office building on a 17-acre parcel for about $2.8 million and spend another $3.2 million to renovate the structure.
First Selectman Mark C. Nickerson calls the proposal a “now or never” opportunity for the town’s police and other public safety operations. He and other town officials made many convincing points in favor of the plan at a press conference earlier this month.
While the timing of the bonding proposal just 18 months after residents approved a $37.5 million school building project is giving some residents and officials justifiable pause, we agree this public safety proposal deserves very serious consideration. Not only would it allow police to move out of their current location in a small Niantic building that is plagued by flooding and was never meant to house a police headquarters, but the proposal also allows public safety operations now scattered throughout and outside town to be consolidated. In addition, the site has ample room for other future municipal uses.
The site location close to Interstate 95 and the Rocky Neck Connector will provide police easy access to the entire town. We believe this location makes it ideally suited for possible future Old Lyme-East Lyme police consolidation. If fact, we think the argument in favor of this proposal grows significantly if Old Lyme can be brought on board as a partner.
While discussions about a police service merger have gone slowly, the idea fits well with what has been a goal for this newspaper and should be a priority for the region — finding more ways to collaborate across borders.
What is beyond debate is that the East Lyme police need a more professional headquarters. Those who have looked at and reviewed numerous possible public safety complex sites in town concluded this option is the best available.
Nickerson said the town’s police now work in deplorable conditions. It’s difficult to dispute this.
After participating in the state’s resident trooper program for many years, in 2016 the Board of Selectmen approved an independent police force. That department, with 23 full-time and one part-time officer, operates out of a small building in downtown Niantic that is rented from Dominion Energy. The building is not laid out for efficient police operations and is plagued by leaks and flooding.
In addition, the town pays Waterford $50,000 annually for space for evidence lockup, vehicle storage and jailing facilities. East Lyme’s fire marshal’s office, dispatch center and emergency operations now operate out of a building in Flanders.
All these operations could consolidate at the proposed site, a building now owned by Honeywell Corp. There would be plenty of room remaining for other future town uses, freeing up space at the town’s community center and possibly negating the need for a $4 million to $6 million expansion of the library and senior center.
Public spending should never be taken lightly. And this proposal needs to pass through the normal evaluation process.
It needs approval by the boards of selectmen and finance before it can be brought to residents in the form of a referendum vote. We understand the likely reluctance among some East Lyme residents to agree to spend millions of more dollars so soon after agreeing to pay for costly school upgrades. Still, there are many solid reasons to consider this proposal and we commend the first selectman and others for bringing it forward.
To become fully informed, we urge residents to watch the videos linked to the town’s website of the press conference announcing the proposal and or attend one of the promised upcoming public information sessions.