A new year begins: Marconi looks ahead to 2020
Bridge building, road repaving, budgets held in check, a town-managed refurbishing of the Venus Building, and progress on longer-range projects including new police and fire facilities, Tiger Hollow, and the revitalization of Main Street, are all part of the work that First Selectman Rudy Marconi sees ahead for Ridgefield in 2020.
But beyond bricks and mortar will be continuing efforts to keep Ridgefield a place of charity, heart, and goodwill toward all.
“Hate has no home here,” reads a poster in Marconi’s office.
The poster — from an anti-hate movement born in Chicago — came to Marconi in the aftermath of one of what he describes as “the swastika incidents.” These were times, too often in the last few years, when Ridgefield’s first selectman has found himself articulating the town’s official response after Hitler’s Nazi symbol, since adopted by a wide range of hate groups, had been found somewhere in town — carved into a desk in a school, or spray-painted onto village businesses.
“America is a country of immigrants,” Marconi said when asked about the poster. “My family came here from Italy. And there are people here from all over the world. And our country has never been one to shut its doors to anyone who wants to come here.”
He worried that his response might sound a little too political, but continued.
“As an individual,” he said, “that sign is here because we are all equal — I work for everyone.”
Marconi has served four two-year terms, followed by three completed four-year terms — and he is now beginning of his fourth four-year stint.
That’s two decades in office.
“I’m in my 21st year. It doesn’t seem that way. As we all say: It doesn’t seem that long,” Marconi said.
“I got elected when I was 50. It’s not the kind of work that — with the exception of very, very few — people think about doing someday, when you’re younger.
“But I like the job,” he added. “it’s rewarding, it’s interesting. For the most part, the people are great. It’s a great town to be the first selectman in. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. I want to thank our residents for allowing me to serve in this capacity.”
As first selectman, Marconi finds the $148 million town and school budget is always looming in the back of his mind — and often enough it’s front and center.
“We’ve already started collecting information through the financial department to put together the 2020-21 fiscal budget,” he said.
“That’s number one: How do we control spending? This past year the Board of Selectmen had a zero percent increase,” he said.
In the 2019-20 fiscal year that’s about through, the selectmen’s town departments budget held steady at $37.5 million — that 0% increase — school spending went up 3.36% to over $98 million, the roads budget was flat at $1.84 million and debt service climbed 2.5% — from about $11 million to $11.3 million.
Another zero increase for town departments?
“It’s going to be extremely difficult to do that this year — I don’t expect it, I wouldn’t expect it,” Marconi said. “But we will work toward that zero percent increase.
“Within the town budget, the number one goal is to keep our increases at a minimum. We all know the schools make up 66% to 68% of our budget,” he said. “We’re going to have to work with the Board of Education in spending our money wisely.
“I know they all understand. They’re elected to the Board of Education. It’s a crucial balance. Education is critical to our community and we’ve got to maintain a balance.
“We’re looking at an awful lot of money, with a system that has about 1,000 fewer kids,” he said.
“When we did the bundle, we were at 5,700 in 2001-02. No one predicted the attack on the towers that had a devastating consequence to many people for many many reasons. No one foresaw a recession that started 2008-09 that had, again, devastating consequences. But common to both was the decrease in babies being born,” Marconi said. “School enrollments have been coming down since then.
“And according to the most recent enrollment report, we’re at about 4,600 student today and it’s forecasted to continue to go down and in 10 years be at about 4,400 students.”
One construction job with a budget impact this year is the renovation of the Venus Building’s south wing — the former VNA offices, closest to the police station — as a new home for the Board of Education’s offices.
“The second round of bids came in. The project was still way over bid with only one bidder responding,” Marconi said
The estimate for the job was $1.3 million, and the bid came in at about $2.1 million, he said.
“One may ask why only one bidder responded, and I don’t have a crystal ball, other than it is a ‘prevailing wage’ job, which will discourage many bidders for that type of project,” he said.
“We again reviewed the bid and found some of the areas estimated were absolutely overestimated. Doors were estimated at $400,000 — a cost we won’t come remotely close to spending,” Marconi said.
“So we’ve decided to break the project down into various trade components — electrical, HVAC, framing, plumbing, Sheetrock, finish work — and we will request individual bids for all the trades that are involved, basically handling the job in-house. And we hope to start soon.
“Jake Muller, our direct or facilities, will be updating the BOS at the second meeting in January.
The timeline for the project is six to eight months, he said, so the hope is that it will be finished in the second half of 2020.
When the Board of Education offices are moved into the south wing, it will open up an area near the Ridgefield Playhouse that director Allison Stockel has said the playhouse wants to expand into.
Another long-term effort Marconi hopes to continue advancing is the Main Street revitalization project.
The state Department of Transportation is at work on the designs for a project which will cover the “Main Street” stretch of Route 35, from Governor Street north to Prospect Street. The biggest focus will be a reconstruction of the intersection of Main Street with Prospect Street on the east and the CVS shopping center driveway to the west with the goal of making the shopping center driveway directly across from Prospect, which should allow a light-cycle to be eliminated and the traffic light changes to be better coordinated with the Catoonah Street and Bailey Avenue intersection and then the Governor Street intersection.
The project also envisions improvements to crosswalks, street furniture, trees and other plantings.
“We hope to have a public hearing for the first half of 2020, with bids going out in the late part of 2020 for construction to commence 2021 — March/April 2021,” Marconi said. “It has been estimated to be approximately a six-month project, with penalties for not hitting milestones — on such a date you will have this much work done. If the work isn’t done, there will be financial penalties,” Marconi said.
“Our experience was not good with the bridge on 35. It is fresh in our minds,” Marconi said. “And we have passed those feelings along to the DOT and they have agreed with us, that we need to take every step possible, every precaution, to ensure timely delivery of this project.”
Even if things go relatively smoothly, major construction in the center of town will be, at minimum, an major annoyance.
“Will there be inconveniences? Absolutely. But we need to limit the amount of time people are inconvenienced,” Marconi said.
The project is expected to cost about $3 million. “The Town of Ridgefield has no financial match,” Marconi said, “it’s 100% paid for with federal and state funding.”
In addition to the state project with its road and sidewalk improvements in the downtown area, Marconi sees the protection of the larger Main Street from overdevelopment as an ongoing challenge
“Protecting the character of our Main Street is a vision of the future,” he said. “... We don’t want to see the kind of ‘infilling’ on our Main Street that has happened in other communities.
“Main Street, I would say, is maybe not an ‘equal to’ but is right up there, as important as our school system,” he said.
The goal is to protect the full length of Main Street, from the caution light at Wilton Road on the south end “north to 116 and beyond, all the way down to Copps Hill,” Marconi said.
Among the threats to Main Street are developments under the state’s 8-30g affordable housing law, which allows developers to circumvent most zoning restrictions by having 30% of new housing units they put up fall within the state’s affordability guidelines.
“We need to protect the historical character of our community and it’s going to take time and hard work to develop a plan that will achieve that, because 8-30g is not going to get changed,” Marconi said.
“So, protecting Main Street is a priority and always will be — as long as I’m here, anyway.”
Police and fire buildings
“A very important project that is just beginning is the assessment of our Police Department building as well as our Fire Department building here in the center of town,” Marconi said..
“Both buildings are in excess of 100 years old. And the infrastructure is at best in poor condition. We need to address that.
“Ten years ago, in 2010, the voters voted down the remodeling of the current police facility by a three-to-one margin, and at that time I believed and we agreed that until our debt service came down that we should put any new building like a Police Department and Fire Station on the back burner,” Marconi said.
“We are at that point now.”
With careful monitoring, the town’s long-term debt has declined to about $60 million from a high of about $140 million nearly 20 years ago, when $90 million in borrowing for the “school bundle” projects followed the construction of the $34 million Scotts Ridge Middle School.
“Our total debt is going to be coming down, it’ll hit a low of $53 million in 2021, that coming down from a high of a little over $140 million in 2001-02-03,” Marconi said.
“Our debt service prior to that was pretty low, which is one reason we had to spend the money — we hadn’t been spending any money taking care of our buildings.”
Marconi will also be keeping an eye on the progress of the town’s sewer plant renovation project — as both first selectman and a member of the Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA).
“I’m am now a member of the WPCA,” he said. “The Board of Selectmen voted to have the first selectman be a member of the WPCA.
“... The new plant, we’re going to, as a board, be watching that. It’s going to take time,” Marconi said.
“It’s a $52 million project that includes the decommissioning of the Route 7 treatment facility ... putting in pump line — much the same as we did to the current high school — to the downtown treatment plant,” he said.
“The WPCA is going to involved in a lot of work over the next two years.”
Another enduring problem Marconi intends to continue battling is substance abuse — from alcohol to opiates.
“I work with West Connecticut Coalition — an organization dedicated to reducing alcohol abuse and drug abuse and promoting and addressing housing needs, rehab facilities, and medical services such as MAT — Medically Assisted Treatment programs — and help alleviate if not remove the stigma associated with this disease,” Marconi said.
“Alcoholism and drug addiction are diseases and our society needs to recognize that, and seriously begin to address and give the help that is needed to those who suffer for these awful diseases.”