Long Lots School project underscores financiers’ debt concerns

Aug 5, 2022 | Education, Government | 0 comments

By Linda Conner Lambeck

WESTPORT — A job-search program is being created in town and an enhanced drainage system is being teed up for the Longshore Golf Course.

Both projects received unanimous approval by the Board of Finance during a Zoom meeting Wednesday.

The seven-member finance panel also decided to keep the pending Long Lots Elementary School construction project at the forefront of its next several agendas as it prepares for what board member Brian Stern called one of the most important financial decisions the town will make over the next two decades.

Long Lots and long-term debt

Stern said he is not against the Long Lots project — estimated to cost $80 to $100 million — but wants the finance panel to learn from others as the town looks to replace the aging Hyde Lane school.

Replacing or renovating Long Lots is the first of several anticipated capital projects that, along with a new firehouse, that will balloon Westport’s bonded debt.

The town’s debt service is now about $11.5 million annually, approximately 5.2 percent of the operating budget. The town owes about $104 million, according to officials. In 10 years, based on capital projects being planned, that debt could increase three-fold.

“We have to get ourselves ready,” said Stern, who along with fellow finance member Lee Caney, wants to invite officials involved in recent town building projects, including the Coleytown Middle School renovation, to a future meeting.

The idea would be to find out what worked well and what didn’t.

“It is a matter of analysis and preparedness,” Stern said.

He also suggested the projected costs for Long Lots be benchmarked against projects underway in other communities. He also recommended discussions with officials in other communities that have gone through periods of high levels of future debt.

Caney suggested now is the time to do analysis while a building committee for Long Lots is in the formative stage.

“We have months to look at this,” said Caney, suggesting that a vote on details of the Long Lots project is not expected until next spring.

Board Chairwoman Sheri Gordon suggested a special meeting might be in order.

The situation facing Westport now, she said, is not unlike other Gold Coast towns, which all built schools during the Baby Boom era of the 1950s, using subpar materials and designs that have not stood the test of time. Long Lots was built in 1953 as a junior high school.

“We are all facing increased debt,” Gordon said.

Help for job seekers

The town will partner with the Westport Library to use $25,000 from the town’s American Rescue Plan Act allocation to develop a new job-search support program.

Elaine Daignault, director of the town’s Department of Human Services, said the proposal is part of a continuing effort to address gaps in services and partner with other community agencies.

Post-pandemic, her department has noticed an uptick in the number of people looking for job assistance. About 2.8 percent of Westport residents are unemployed, according to the Department of Labor.

Daignault called the proposal a pilot program that would involve the library hiring a dedicated, part-time career coach to provide hands-on technical assistance to those who are unemployed or under-employed.

Individuals currently are directed out-of-town to receive employment services.

“We want to take barriers away,” said Daignault.

Once established, Daignault said the program will be assessed based on feedback and how many people are placed in jobs.

Longshore Golf Course drainage

The $237,000 proposed to install a drainage system at the Longshore Golf Course involves 17 greens. Two have previously been installed several years ago and are working well.

Funding will be covered by golf fees that were raised last year.

Rick Giunta, deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department, said the plan was approved by the Parks and Recreation Commission last fall.

Requests for Proposals were issued and Xtreme Golf Management was the low bidder on the project. Work will start this fall and take four weeks to complete with minimal disruption to the golf course or play, Giunta said.

Michael West, the department’s superintendent, said the new drainage system will improves surface playability.

The drainage system is expected to last 20 years.

Freelance writer Linda Conner Lambeck, a reporter for more than four decades at the Connecticut Post and other Hearst publications, is a member of the Education Writers Association.

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