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Rell Proposes Canceling Funds For City, Town Projects

SHAWN R. BEALS

February 28, 2009

Hartford wanted $50,000 to make a playground accessible to kids with disabilities.

West Hartford wanted $500,000 to improve one of its senior centers.

Farmington was looking for $200,000 to rebuild the outdoor track at its high school.

Those are just a few of the projects that will not be receiving state funds this year or, probably, at any time in the near future. As state leaders grapple with how to make do with less, Gov. M. Jodi Rell has proposed canceling $389 million in state and local bond projects, forcing cash-strapped towns to decide whether they can, or want to, fund their own dreams.

The list of cancellations includes state and local projects the legislature authorized as far back as 1988. Once projects are authorized, the State Bond Commission, which is headed by the governor, must vote to release the money. Many of the aborted funds were for quality-of-life projects parks, theaters and museums in addition to money for colleges, housing development and streetscape work.

"The projects are pretty clearly not essential in economic times like we are facing right now," said Rich Harris, a Rell spokesman. "They can't be a priority right now."

Not a priority for state officials, perhaps.

"They're projects of local significance," said state Sen. Donald DeFronzo, D- New Britain. "If the state doesn't chip in, those are expenses that local taxpayers will have to pick up."

Many of the projects affect more than residents of a specific town.

UConn Husky fans who have attended football games at Rentschler Field, for example, are familiar with the post-game traffic nightmares. East Hartford officials had asked the State Bond Commission for $10.3 million to ease the problem.

That project has been scuttled, but it should have been considered essential, said East Hartford Mayor Melody Currey. "That has been a long-standing commitment that the state has made to help with the development, and the money was never allocated," Currey said. "It would have been a perfect project."

Cutting Back On Debt

Jeffrey Beckham, a spokesman for the state Office of Policy and Management, said that many of the longtime projects on the list had been added at the request of town officials and legislators, and Rell has said that the state must cut back on its bonded debt.

DeFronzo said that the governor's proposed cancellations would cut nearly 19 percent of the total $2.1 billion pending bond list. He also said that the Senate revenue and bonding committee, on which he serves, would probably try to restore some of the projects.

The state generally pays for bond projects over time using tax revenue. Harris said that Rell has always tried to maintain the state's high bond rating, which keeps interest rates down.

"There's only so much additional bonding that can be done while staying under that threshold," Harris said. "The governor has been so adamant about limiting the amount of bonding the state does."

He said that Connecticut has the highest per-capita bonded indebtedness in the nation, but that its high AA bond rating is not in jeopardy.

A decision has not been made yet on whether projects left on the list will be funded, but they have been deemed a priority, and state officials are hopeful that funds will be allocated in the future, Beckham said.

Beckham said that the canceled projects also would not be funded through the federal stimulus program because most do not fit in any existing federal funding categories. Nonetheless, he said, many towns submitted nearly any project that needed funding, anyway, making up the huge "shovel-ready" list that the governor sought.

State officials are still unclear on specifics of a federal stimulus plan, which was approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama.

"That's the big unknown," Beckham said.

Harris could not say whether canceled state projects would have more or less of a chance to receive funding under the federal stimulus package. Projects would have to be assessed individually, he said.

"The goals that the governor has set for the projects that will be funded with the stimulus money are, No. 1, to create jobs, and, No. 2, to bolster the economy to really take off when the economy turns around," Harris said.

A Bristol Park

Bristol's situation might be typical of the choices other municipalities have to make.

The city had sought $4 million in state bond money to help revitalize its nearly century-old Rockwell Park. The project was also submitted as a federal stimulus candidate. The nearly 100-acre park is in the middle of its renovation, and the state bond money was to be used for the third phase, Mayor Art Ward said.

"We're going to have to step back and reassess our priorities," Ward said. "Other priorities might be sidelined" in favor of finishing the park project.

The city has now planned to pick up the whole bill and bond $7 million for the project, said Ed Swicklas, parks supervisor. Officials want to beautify the historic park, turning it into an attractive space with fountains and places to sit and stroll, he said. "Instead of bonding $7 million, we would have only bonded $3 million," Swicklas said. "It did, maybe, take away from another project that was a priority."

He said the city is still hopeful that the federal government will offset future costs to the town, but the state bond cancellation won't trip up the plan.

Losers And Losers

Bridgeport was the biggest loser in the governor's proposed bond cuts. About $46 million in authorized projects was canceled, including $10 million for Congress Street Bridge construction and $10 million for waterfront remediation.

Other losers include East Granby, which had sought $7 million to improve High Meadows camp; East Haddam, which had hoped for $5 million for Goodspeed Opera House; Middletown, which lost $475,000 to help with renovations to fire stations in the South Fire District; and Hartford, which had sought $1 million to revitalize Pope Park. In addition, $6 million in bonding for a statewide bikeway program was canceled.

In addition to the roads around Rentschler Field, East Hartford had sought about $12 million for other projects.

The town's other major canceled project was help for Goodwin College, which is undergoing a relocation to the riverfront area along Route 2. The bonding would have covered several aspects of the project, including environmental cleanup and construction that would ultimately improve the surrounding neighborhood, Currey said.

"It would have been nice to have been consulted before your projects were removed," Currey said. "It was perhaps shortsighted to have canceled those two projects altogether."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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