Fairfield officials consider $446M in possible projects

Rich Forest works to repair a salt spreader on the back of a truck outside the Town of Fairfield’s department of public works garage, in Fairfield, Conn. Dec. 16, 2020.

Rich Forest works to repair a salt spreader on the back of a truck outside the Town of Fairfield’s department of public works garage, in Fairfield, Conn. Dec. 16, 2020.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

FAIRFIELD — Paving, school air conditioning and public work vehicles are just some of the items Fairfield is considering as part of $446 million in possible capital spending that would be spread out over 10 years.

First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick said the proposed costs are significantly more than in previous years, adding costs come largely from the town including all known projects on the assessment and the Board of Education’s plans for air conditioning.

She said the town cannot and will not spend that much over a 10-year period, but wanted to put all possible projects out in the open for officials to see, noting that $446 million figure would come down.

“Many of these projects have been either neglected in the past, connected to fill pile remediation or life-safety issues at town buildings, and unfortunately, the Penfield Pavilion reconstruction,” she said at a recent workshop. “Without the cost of the fill pile in the town, we would have far more room in the next three years to do other things.”

Board of Finance member Jim Walsh said he was concerned the capital spending plan is more of a wish-list than a definitive, prioritized plan.

Kupchick said she wants to have a working group, made up of different town official, to improve the process of making a capital plan, and to create a more firm five-year capital plan after this budget season.

“I would like to lead that up and establish that,” she said.

BOE Chair Christine Vitale said HVAC was a primary concern of the school system in terms of long-term planning, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Over the last two years especially, we are learning how important mechanical means of fresh air is — ventilation and air circulation within our buildings — for the health and safety of our students, ” she said.

Vitale said moving forward with the plan sooner will lower costs, noting estimates show the project would decrease in price from approximately $100 million to about $75 million. The majority of the school district’s planned fiscal year 2023 capital spending is allotted to installing or upgrading HVAC in the schools.

The recent workshop included the 10-year capital proposals from the town, schools and Water Pollution Control Authority. The town also showed how those plans impact the proposed spending on future bonding and debt service requirements.

“One of the key objectives for our board is to understand how that proposed future bonding fits into the policies we’ve established around debt service limits and into the guidance we get from our financial advisers,” Board of Finance Chairwoman Lori Charlton said.

Charlton said managing debt limits helps the town protect its AAA bond rating, as well as the annual budget, by ensuring debt service costs do not take priority over other spending.

Kupchick said the workshop would help the town balance and prioritize its many needs. She said town policy caps annual bonding at $37.5 million in order to keep debt service below 8.45 percent of the budget.

The total assessment of the combined capital needs of the town, WPCA and Board of Education is a 98 percent increase over the current plan. It is not possible to complete all town projects over the next decade, she said, as the town would quickly exceed its bonding capacity.

The projects slated for the next fiscal year are ones the town has prioritized, Kupchick said, but the other projects included in the assessment are part of her desire to “lay it all out there” for officials to discuss and work through.

Kupchick said the capital needs of the WPCA have not changed significantly since last year. However, she said, there will be a commitment to identifying and addressing major inflow and infiltration issues before pursuing a large-scale upgrade to the main facility on Richard White Way.

Kupchick said the town’s portion of the proposed 2023 capital plan is $23.9 million. She said fill pile remediation and issues with the Penfield Pavilion make up $10.6 million, or 45 percent, of those costs.

For capital spending in the 2023 fiscal year, not accounting for the fill pile and pavilion spending, the Board of Education has proposed $15.8 million, the town has proposed $13.2 million and the WPCA has proposed $4.2 million.

Another primary topic of discussion was how the town would fund road maintenance and paving.

While Walsh said he was fine with the possibility of bonding to catch up on maintenance, he thinks normal work should be an operating expense. Since the town does paving every year, he said, it would be accruing unneeded interest on the bonds.

“I like the plan being rolled out,” he said. “But if we’re going to do it, I think we got to come to a resolution soon, because it’s going to be in the upcoming budget, on how we’re going to pay for that.”

Charlton said the town has spent up to and more than $3 million annually on paving, and noted the paving plan calls for using a combination of bonding and American Rescue Plan Act funding to bring that cost to the town down to $1 million a year. She said financing the road plan should become its own agenda item at a future meeting.

“I understand the pressure on the budget, but we don’t save money by putting paving on a credit card,” she said.

joshua.labella@hearstmediact.com