$5 million in capital spending includes Venus renovations

Beefed up with the late addition of a $1,350,000 “self-sustaining” renovation plan for the Venus Building, $5.2 million in capital spending for 2018-19 has been approved by the Board of Finance and will move on to voters.

Other major items in the capital budget approved Tuesday, April 3, include $570,000 for a 63-car parking lot for the downtown area, all the $475,700 in technology and security-related upgrades sought by the Board of Education, and a $690,000 pumper-tanker sought by the fire department to replace an aging piece of equipment.

The finance board approved the Venus renovation project on one motion, after it had been explained in some detail by First Selectman Rudy Marconi, Controller Kevin Redmond, and Town Engineer Charles Fisher. Then later in the meeting, after further debate, the finance board passed another motion approving the capital budget as it had previously been discussed — a $3,861,000 capital plan that didn’t include the $1,350,000 for the Venus project.

The next day it wasn’t clear whether the Venus project would be part of the capital plan that goes to voters at the Annual Town Meeting and subsequent budget referendum, or whether it would be sent for approval in a separate town meeting vote. In either case, both were approved by both the selectmen and the finance board, so they’ll end up coming before voters.

The capital budget is made up of purchases and projects expected to be financed with borrowing, so they’re not in the calculations for next year’s tax rate, though they generally do add to debt service and taxes in future years.

Venus plan

While it would add to debt service, the $1.3 million for the Venus renovation — which would accommodate a relocation of school offices so the Playhouse could expand — was presented to both the selectmen and finance board as “self-sustaining” in that the renovated building is expected to generate more rental income than it currently does, from the Playhouse and from expanded use by the current tenant, Chefs’ Warehouse.

With Chefs’ Warehouse — which is expected to take the whole second floor of the building’s south wing — the projected rents would exceed the annual cost of bond repayment, which would run about $93,000 a year.

“It’s a net positive for the town in the long run,” Marconi told the board before its vote.

The lease negotiations have yet to be completed with any tenants, but Marconi, Redmond and Fisher presented a plan based on low-end estimates of the rental income, which they said made them confident the project would pay for itself.

Some members of the Board of Selectmen — who also voted Tuesday to add the Venus project to the capital plan, a few hours before the finance board took it up — have said that the Chefs’ Warehouse lease would likely happen even without the renovations, which are proposed as a way to relocate the school offices and open up space near the Playhouse for its expansion plans.

Still, the selectmen, like the finance board, supported the $1,350,000 project — though they did first trim the contingency and architectural fees.

“This is a real budget,” Selectman Bob Hebert told the finance board. “We looked at it six ways to Sunday.”

Hebert also argued that even if there turned out to be some problems with leases, the town would still benefit from fixing up its building — including things like an elevator.

“This is a town asset,” Hebert said. “I think we have to preserve that asset. We’re enhancing the value of it, bringing it up to code, the ADA.”

The plans do not include an expansion of parking, which might eventually be needed to accommodate the growth of Chefs’ Warehouse, Marconi said. More parking could be added along the building’s semi-circular front driveway, he said.

School security

School board Vice Chairman Doug Silver assured the finance board that the security-related items in the schools’ capital requests were part of a continuing multi-year effort to make the schools safer, based on periodic security audits that are done by the state police.

“The hardened doors we have, the locks we have, the training of the teachers — all come into play,” Silver said.

The $475,000 security initiative in the 2018-19 plan includes $75,000 for 47 security cameras, mostly for the interior of elementary schools but also some added cameras for the high school; $68,900 for a new entry vestibule at East Ridge Middle School; $105,000 for “engineered window film” that would strengthen first-floor glass in all the buildings, to slow down an intruder who attempted to get in by smashing through windows and also reducing potential injuries from shattering glass; and $226,800 for upgrades to the technology infrastructure like servers and wireless access points that, among many uses, support all the building systems, including security-related things like the door locks.

At the end of the capital spending discussion, finance board member Dick Moccia, a former mayor of Norwalk, expressed particular confidence in the value of a relatively small, little-debated capital budget item sought by the Ridgefield Police Department.

“On the license plate reader — it’s $20,000 — that’s going to be one of the biggest bonuses. There’s going to be multiple returns on that,” he said. “You’ll get a lot of bad people off the road.”