Hines Sight / What's left in your wallet?
Did you hear that sound? That was your wallet gasping for breath.
And why not? You and it just learned that the town is in some financial trouble with the construction of the infamous third train station off Commerce Drive.
It seems as though the budget for the controversial station -- plagued with problems from the start -- is going to have a shortfall. And not a small one at that. Interim First Selectman Mike Tetreau -- dealing with his first big headache since taking office on June 9 -- dropped a big bomb on the Representative Town Meeting and taxpayers late last month. As of April 30, the station's budget looks to be about $2 million short -- at the minimum. The worst-case scenario is $6 million. And who gets to pay for it? Well, we do. Lucky us. (How do you like the job so far, Mike?)
The who, how, what and when are as big a mystery as that of who killed 2-year-old Caylee Marie Anthony in Florida. And, of course, this mystery, too, is filled with denials, especially from former First Selectman Ken Flatto. More on him in a second.
Tetreau told the RTM that he started to put together some information on the project from the day he assumed the first selectman's chair. His predecessor, acting First Selectman Sherri Steeneck, brought the possibility of cost overruns to his attention. He said more contaminated soil than expected at the site was discovered and needs to be removed. One of the problems is finding a place to dump it; the other is the effort and cost to do that. (I can't help but wonder if this situation would have been caught a lot earlier if Conservation Director Tom Steinke had not been summarily removed from oversight of the project years ago.)
And then to make matters worse, Tetreau also alerted the RTM that a modified project agreement signed in 2010 by Flatto relinquishes any claim to revenue from commuter parking fees at the station and made the town responsible for any cost overruns. What geniuses thought this up?
The parking revenue was supposed to help the town repay the $6 million in bonding that it contributed to the project. The explanation for the modified agreement is that the state -- which ponied up $19.4 million and took control of the project after the private developer defaulted on loans -- wants to be reimbursed, so that comes out of the town's anticipated revenue.
RTM members were livid about both pieces of news -- the overruns and the modified contract. Members of the board of finance, on which Tetreau sat, were similarly upset. Both groups felt that the modified contract should have gone to them for approval, but that never happened.
Now, as for Flatto, who resigned May 3 to become state director of special revenue, it is really hard to decipher if he's telling the truth or not. At a special meeting of the finance board two days after this news was revealed, Flatto said he couldn't let other town officials know about the negotiations with the contract modification because then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell insisted on a "cone of silence." There is no way to know if that is true unless Rell comes out of retirement and fesses up.
Flatto was "shocked" when Tetreau told him of the cost overruns. Flatto only needed to add the words "and appalled" to make that a true politico's empty statement. He also said the last figures he saw on the costs had the project coming in under budget by about $300,000. For months, Flatto has been giving regular status updates to the RTM about the project. I sat through the one in April, just before he left office, and everything was rosy and perfect and under budget -- all illustrated in a slide show.
The contract modifications were necessary to save the project and see it to fruition, he said, defending his actions. As for town decision-making bodies not signing off on the contract, he told the Fairfield Citizen at one point, "Everybody heard the deal last spring. Everybody was told about the deal." But then said the changes were no secret, but then said the modifications were not discussed with town bodies. So who knew what when and how?
Here's what I don't buy about what he says. He prides himself on being a fierce numbers cruncher and that he guarded taxpayers' money. So how on earth did he let this slip buy him? Steeneck herself said she disputed Flatto's claim that he was not aware of the severity with the excess contaminated soil that has to be removed. Again, where was the proper oversight? Who was in charge?
The firm hired to inspect the property, monitor testing and keep an eye on the construction also acts as the project manager. Well, hindsight is indeed 20/20, isn't it? No offense to the firm, which probably has done yeoman's work, but wouldn't a construction manager from the start have been the right way to go? That is one of the measures that Tetreau wants to make now, but that means more money.
The finance board and the RTM have approved an appropriation of $20,000 for an independent audit of the project from the beginning. That's a good move and a necessary one, especially since we don't know the extent of the town's liability. Tetreau said he will explore all options to keep the town's expenses down. Let's hold him to his word.
Now back to your wallet. In the same week -- in fact, the night after Tetreau revealed this unsettling news to the RTM -- the out-of-touch Board of Education approved a $10,000 bonus for Superintendent of Schools David Title, who has been in office about a year. The bonus was for fiscal year 2010-11, which ended June 30. Next year, a bonus of $12,500 is possible. The board justified its action in awarding the bonus because Title would not be given a raise this year. He already makes $260,000 a year and gets numerous benefits.
It's not that Title doesn't deserve the recognition -- he handled with considerable dignity the tense budget battle that saw $2.8 million cut from school spending -- but the board's timing stinks. At their meeting, board members admitted that economic times are hard, thus the reason for no raise. But they still wrote a substantial check -- this taking place after they criticized the boards of selectmen and finance and the RTM for potentially damaging the education of Fairfield kids because of the budget cut.
Patricia A. Hines can be reached at email@example.com. She also can be followed at http://blog.ctnews.com/hines.