Town Hall Rides Wave of Hearing Support to November Referendum Date
NEWINGTON - The fate of a proposed $28.8 million Town Hall reconstruction scheme will be up to the voters, but the residents that have weighed in on the project so far-through last Tuesday’s public hearing-have been largely supportive.

       The Town Council followed suit by unanimously moving the tentative project to the November 7 referendum date, while echoing public sentiment in favor of reconstructing both the Town Hall administrative building and the Mortensen Community Center in an effort to generate a projected $104,000 per year in energy savings.

       “We often talk about needs versus wants,” said Councilor Jim Marocchini, who served on the Town Hall Project Building Committee. “I think the town deserves to want something for a change, and we do need it. And this is a project that touches everyone in this community.”

       The Parks and Recreation segment of supporters has been particularly vocal, lobbying aggressively for the Community Center’s proposed double gymnasium-a core feature of the Quisenberry Arcari devised scheme.

       Numerous Park and Rec programs, as well as the Newington High School basketball teams, frequent the current Mortensen Community Center gymnasium-reportedly wrought with leaking and temperature control issues.

       “I see up close and firsthand the kind of shape this building’s in. We’re in the gym a lot,” said town resident Bernadette Conway. “It’s leaking a lot. It’s 80 degrees in there. The building is completely inefficient, is what it comes down to. It’s falling apart, and this is long past due. Nobody wants our taxes raised, but we cannot be penny wise and pound foolish.”

       While the Mill Rate will not be unaffected by the project, the town’s built in bonding scheme through the Capital Improvement Program will ensure that increases do not exceed what has already been planned for, according to Town Manager Tanya Lane.

       The CIP budget-debt service and pay-as-you-go formula that, combined, never exceeds a $6.2 million cap set in 2006-enables the town to make its bond payments over a 20 year period without further impact to taxpayers, Lane said.

       Debt service for the 2018 fiscal year will make up $1.1 million for the formula. By 2020, that number will climb to $3.2 million, she said.

       But a couple of hearing attendees were skeptical. For William Lanza, the concern is still over the financing. While the picture regarding debt may look optimistic now, the plan doesn’t take into account a scenario in which other costs such as the governor proposed shift of teacher pension payments are imposed upon the towns, he said.

       Town resident John Bachand, who admitted that he’s “torn” on the subject, supported moving the project to referendum to give the town at large a crack at it. His primary concern was not with the financing, but whether or not the existing building needs to be demolished to account for the numerous mechanical and utility issues plaguing it.

       “I’ve worked on a hundred plus year old buildings this past month,” said Bachand, a contractor by trade. “I can’t buy into the fact you need to knock down this building because it’s leaking. I don’t disagree it’s energy and space inefficient. I’m warning you not to be offended if it doesn’t pass at the referendum, because you’re all my friends that this is a tiny sampling of the community.”

       The building-formerly Newington High School-was converted to a Town Hall in the 1970’s after a failed attempt to use a parcel on Constance Leigh Drive.

       Former Mayor Rodney Mortensen remembers the proposal to move the Town Hall to its current location well-it was his late father who came up with the idea.

       “If he was here now, he would say knock it down-it’s used up its shelf life.” Mortensen said.

       By shrinking the Town Hall footprint by around 28,000 square feet-to account for wide hallway space that accommodated the former school-the team was able to narrow size down to just its “usable space”, according to Building Committee Chair Joe Harpie.

       “This building is chalk full of wasted space, plain and simple,” said Architect Thomas Arcari.

       In the new scheme, the building gains in meeting space-plans include an enlarged Council Chambers equipped to hold up to 200 people, with the flexibility to split the room to accommodate multiple gatherings.

       The building’s north/south scheme pushes it closer to Mill Pond Park, while a campus wide walkway promises to link the Library, Town Hall, Community Center, and Police Department.