Updated, 11:14 a.m.: Copy edits, revised headline
NORWALK, Conn. — The Common Council on Wednesday authorized the deal it has worked out with the Oak Hills Park Authority, over the protests of four citizens who said the deal had been developed behind closed doors and just became public knowledge this week.
The three-part action authorized an $83,000 special appropriation to cover the Authority’s investment in custom restaurant equipment, allowing the cash-strapped Authority to meet its payroll obligations over the winter; changed the terms of the 2005 loan, with about $2 million outstanding, to make the interest rate zero, retroactive to Fiscal Year 2017; and eliminated the yearly payment on the loan in favor of collecting $2 per round of golf monthly, beginning on July 1, 2020. The Authority will also make an annual payment of 1 percent of its audited annual gross golf revenue.
It’s the fourth time the loan has been restructured, Paul Cantor protested to the Council, charging that the deal had been made outside of the public eye.
“Always the hope of citizens in a democracy is that their elected officials will rise above the pressures placed on them by special interest groups in order to represent the interests of all of those that they have been elected to represent. But with respect to Oak Hills, we just do not see that happening,” he said.
Cantor expressed concern that there’s no guarantee the money will come in, due to decreasing demand for golf rounds. “When is the Oak Hills Park Authority charade going to end?” he asked.
Yvonne Lopaur read the Council comments from NancyOnNorwalk, including Mitch Adis calling the deal “a scam” and “Al Bore” who wrote, “I thought having a bar was going to solve all of the restaurant’s problems and it would be able to survive on it’s own two feet??”
The Authority should be abolished, she said.
Diane Keefe said she’d just read the news articles Wednesday morning, and had the same thoughts as Lopaur and Cantor.
The park should be under the jurisdiction of the Recreation and Parks Department and turned into a destination for year-round activities, she said. Keefe also suggested a Request for Proposals be issued to attract new restauranteurs.
“I object to the $83,000 being the reason why we have to make a decision on the restructuring now. I think if the Authority needs a short-term loan to bail out this most recent expense, that’s one thing. But dealing with the $2 million-plus along with it, I completely object to it,” she said. “I think the structure having a no-interest loan is horrible … the incentives are not in the right direction for repayment.”
The issue drew public attention on Tuesday and Wednesday, after the proposal was added to the Board of Estimate and Taxation agenda at the last minute. The agenda for Thursday’s Council Finance Committee meeting includes discussing the proposal – a Committee discussion is a preliminary step, done ahead of a full Council vote.
Diane Lauricella sent the Council an email Wednesday, saying, “While I am sure several of you have spent many hours trying to resolve the ongoing financial troubles of the Oak Hills Park and Golf Club, the PUBLIC does not appear to have had the ability to study and offer alternatives for the final plan being discussed tonight. I propose you wait one month in order to allow due diligence to occur by the public as well as many of the Council members not involved with the intimate details.”
“This was probably discussed at every other Finance Committee meeting that we had,” Council member Doug Hempstead (R-District D) said.
Mayor Harry Rilling said Monday that the Council has been discussing it for months, and Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E) and Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large) have relayed information back to the full Council while working as part of a Committee formed to work out a solution to Oak Hills’ ills.
“Finally, this has come to fruition,” Hempstead said. He noted that former Council President Jerry Petrini (R-District D) discussed helping Oak Hills and he hasn’t been on the Council in five years.
The Authority was formed because the City had been running Oak Hills and “it never made enough money to fund itself,” necessitating subsidies, Hempstead, a veteran Council member, said.
“The problem is the Authority for some reason decided to shoulder a building that was $3.2 million, that you could never get the revenue out of that building to pay for the debt service on that bond,” Hempstead said. “This finally kind of levels the playing field, gives them opportunity to pay it back. I think it’s also, a great suggestion, I think it was the Mayor’s, if I remember correctly, about charging per round of golf, to be paid the following month.”
“We are not forgiving the loan, we are forgiving the interest,” Livingston said, in response to a comment by Cantor that the loan was being forgiven. “We are trying to create a mechanism that permits the Authority to make realistic payments on this…. I personally do not play golf but I do recognize the value of Oak Hills to the community and to the City.”
It’s not just a recently renovated golf course but also tennis courts, a restaurant and a nature trail, Burnett said.
“I don’t play golf either,” he added. The deal “will assist Oak Hills Authority to continue to maintain one of the top public courses in the area while developing a financial level of stability necessary to manage the facility… This is a forward step in the right direction to maintain and enhance one of Norwalk’s key venues,” Burnett said.
No one voted against the proposal; Darlene Young (D-District B) abstained on the $83,000 special appropriation. Michael Corsello (D-At Large), Beth Siegelbaum (D-District C), George Tsiranides (D-District D) and Nick Sacchinelli (D-At Large) were absent.
“This has been on the table, trying to help Oak Hills get out of situation that has existed for many, many, years, to no fault of the Authority that sits now” Rilling said. “If the city were to take over the running of Oak Hills Park, we would have to hire staff to maintain it. With the staff go benefits, workman comp issues and all other things which now fall under the responsibility of the Authority.”
The intention is to put out an RFP for a new food vendor, he said.
OHPA Chairman Bill Waters said Monday that an agreement has been made with the current vendor to lease the space through the season.
There were many iterations of the deal, going back and forth, Rilling said Wednesday.
“This loan will be paid, it will be paid on time and it will be paid on a monthly basis with an annual 1 percent payment,” Rilling said. “It was a challenge and I recognize the issue, with some of the people who spoke against it. We certainly had our reservations but it is a park, it is a golf course, it is a gem in the City, it does bring people into the City of Norwalk. It is one of the City’s jewels and one of the things for which the City is known.”