NEWINGTON - It was a tale of two Newingtons for Town Manager Tanya Lane when she spoke at the State of the Town breakfast at Newington High School on Thursday, March 1.
“To paraphrase (Charles) Dickens, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” said Lane.
Following the news of the town’s economic profile and recent investment projects, Lane gave an update on the impacts of the school bus garage fuel spill and financial burdens the state is placing on the town.
“Newington’s economic health is right in line with the rest of the country,” said Lane. Unemployment is at 3.3 percent and the average household income is at $90,000 a year, she said.
Lane also touted Anna Reynolds Elementary School being named a blue ribbon school, Parks & Rec programs being at an all-time high, crime trending downwards and senior services being recognized at the state and national level.
The town has also spent $5 million a year for several years on investment projects, Lane said, such as regular public works projects, the transfer station on Main Street and improvements as part of the Town Center Streetscape project.
“We have been wise to invest in ourselves…” said Lane.
Detailed plans on the new Town Hall complex are underway with bidding to take place in the spring, Lane added.
Lane said the town has been good custodians of taxpayer dollars and learned to spend wisely while being thrifty to allow for such investments. This has also led to an outstanding debt service for the town of only $4.2 million, after May, she said.
“So, good times, right?” said Lane before discussing the fuel spill and state financial aid hardships,
“I believe that digging has come to an end and now we can concentrate on restoring the site,” said Lane, referencing the fuel spill by the Newington school bus garage discovered on Dec. 27.
According to Lane, the town has excavated a 12-foot-deep hole that is approximately to 30,000 square feet or three quarters of an acre to clean up the up to 19,000 gallons of diesel fuel that dispersed over a 13-month span across at least a half-mile radius around Garfield Street.
Nearly 14,000 tons of soil has been remediated, almost 350,000 gallons of water has been pumped and treated and the bus garage was demolished to address contamination under the building.
“We continue to wrestle with how to get rid of the contamination under Garfield Street, because I am extremely opposed to tearing up the road,” said Lane.
As the hole got larger, though, so did the cost, said Lane. The latest estimate from the environmental remediation of the project is $3.7 million.
To offset the cost, Lane said, $950,000 from the school’s capital improvement reserve fund was re-prioritized and $500,000 from the town’s capital improvement plan was moved to a schools expense account for the diesel spill. Another $800,000 from the 2018-19 budget’s capital improvement plan, a potential reimbursement of $1 million and the council has authorized the use of short term borrowing in the amount of $5,000, said Lane.
“Although I dearly hope we do not have to tap into this,” she added.
Before unveiling her proposed 8.1 percent tax increase for next year’s budget, Lane continued with the state’s financial hardships as part of the negative news.
“In this next budget year we must deal with recovering from the 2017-18 state aid cutbacks and the temporary financial measures taken to cover the loss of those funds,” she said.
Those were deferrals and freezes on positions, salaries, equipment and projects when the state cut $3.3 million in funds to the town. The schools’ budget received no cuts, despite it representing 61 percent of the overall budget.
“These savings for the most part are temporary,” said Lane, adding that positions will need to be filled, salaries will need to increase to keep them competitive and projects will need to be completed.
Prior to lane’s speaking, Mayor Roy Zartarian gave an update on several businesses that relocated to, expanded in, opened up or are in the planning phase in Newington.
Manufacturers Corsicana Mattress, PCX Aerostructures, EDRIVE Actuators, Integral Industries, Yamazen Inc., Blackhawk industrial and Civitillo Masonry were among some of those new businesses, and Sam’s Club is staying in town despite a rash of closings by parent Walmart.
Constructing a new business at the old Eversource Building at 333 Berlin Turnpike, and finding a replacement for the Bonefish Grill were in the works for completion this year, he said. Discussions with a hotel developer for the National Welding site are going to continue, Zartarian said, despite plans for leasing spaces and planned parking garage falling through due to state budget issues.
“It seems commerce abhors vacant space in Newington,” said Zartarian. He said the town has a 3.4 percent vacancy rate, the lowest in the Hartford region. “When something becomes vacant something always seems to move in.”