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Perone: Oak Hills bond won’t stick if city rejects master plan

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State Rep. Chris Perone (D-137).

 
Updated 12:36 a.m. Thursday, July 25, with additional Perone, state comments.

NORWALK, Conn. – State Rep. Chris Perone (D-137) got a surprise last weekend, and he was not amused.

The five-term legislator, who is facing a primary challenge Aug. 12 from Common Councilman David Watts (D-District A), found out through media reports that Gov. Dannel Malloy, who chairs the State Bond Commission, had agreed to slip a $1.5 million gift to the Oak Hills Park Authority onto the Friday, July 25 agenda. That gift is intended to give the OHPA’s $4.45 million master plan a kick start. The only problem with that, Perone points out, is that the plan has not received local approvals.

“My concern is that the state is issuing money before the project is even approved,” Perone wrote in an email response to NancyOnNorwalk. “Generally it works the other way around. And while it’s true that the funds won’t be released until there is an approved plan in place, I feel the question of how and for what use the funds can be used is something that I need to know more about.”

Mayor Harry Rilling also expressed surprise when he heard about the bond, saying it was the first he had heard of it, and he sounded like someone who would be advocating against the city chipping in to pay for improvements to the golf course, including a driving range/golf learning center.

“I’m not in favor of taking on more financial obligations for the city at this time,” he said.

Opposition to the city agreeing to take on more debt for the course could make the bond vote a moot point.

State Office of Policy and Management Undersecretary for Legislative Affairs Gian-Carl Casa confirmed Perone’s assertion that local approvals are needed before the funds are released.

“Even once the Bond Commission acts, we don’t just give funds to recipients to use as they wish,” Casa said. “They need to meet legal requirements and sign a contract before they receive anything.  … They also need to have any necessary local approvals, including land use approvals. If a given project doesn’t get necessary local approvals, it wouldn’t get the funding.”

The fact that Malloy, a Democrat, agreed to put the bond on the agenda at the behest of outgoing House Minority Leader Larry Cafero (R-142) raised some eyebrows, especially given that the move came as a surprise to the Democratic delegation and to Rilling, who has had a close relationship with the governor.

It also raised some hackles.

Betsy Bowen Wrenn, a member of the Friends of Oak Hills Park, emailed a letter to the member of the State Bond Commission.

“I write to urge you to vote down the granting of $1.5 million for a large commercial driving range in Oak Hills Park, Norwalk,” she wrote. “The plan is an unnecessary, unapproved, ill-conceived scheme, slapped together by the developer himself with scant public participation.

“Nothing about the Park Authority’s planning process has been on the up-and-up. Even the RFP specifications are now being casually ignored. This so-called ‘master plan’ should be scrapped and redrawn using proper municipal guidelines and community input.”

Wrenn wrote that there are better uses in Norwalk for that $1.5 million of taxpayer money.

“It would have been more appropriate were Representative Cafero asking for $1.5 million on behalf of our school libraries that have been reduced to begging for book donations due to budget cuts,” she wrote.

“If the Bond Commission were to grant funding this project, it would be legitimizing a half-baked pipe dream, and will stand as an example of an out-of-touch government’s callous misuse of funding during a time of hardship for families everywhere.”

Cafero said he approached the state to request funds for the 45-year-old course, which he said is in need of refurbishment. “I made a request, they put it on the agenda,” he said.

While some people assume the money is earmarked for the driving range – the focal point of a long-term discussion about creating a revenue stream for the course – Cafero said it’s up to “the local guys” how the money can be spent. He said he would hope the grant would go to refurbishing the course, but, “The only string is they have to use it for the golf course,” he said. Cafero said he didn’t think it was necessary for Norwalk to raise the balance of the money needed for the master plan, which is in the neighborhood of $3 million, to spend the grant.

Said Casa, “The language in the (Bond Commission) agenda says it’s for improvements to the course, including ‘a new golf learning center, a new nature learning center and other facility improvements.’  The $1.5 million isn’t enough to cover the entire project.”

The cost of the Oak Hills Golf School – the driving range – is pegged at $2.5 million in the master plan, available on the OHPA website.

Perone said Wednesday morning that he intended to talk with Malloy’s office and Casa later in the day.

“One of my main concerns about the $1.5M bond allocation for Oak Hills is oversight,” he said. “More specifically, I wanted to know the spending parameters and statutory limitations that are likely to be imposed on the allocation.”

Casa’s response was essentially the same as before:

“Once the State Bond Commission acts, the entity receiving the funds does not automatically get the amount allocated.  The project is assigned to an agency to administer and that agency will negotiate a contract with the recipient.

“The project must be within the parameters of the legislative authorization and the language of the Bond Commission allocation. One of the items that an agency would require would be that a project receive all local land use approvals – a project that does not meet the requirements of the contract would not get the funding.

“Receiving entities are subject to the state’s single audit act so that the state knows the expenditures were legal according to federal, state and local law.”

Common Council member Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large), chairman of the Council’s Finance Committee, pointed to the OHPA’s past problems paying off its debt to the city for previous loans, a debt he said is now “about $165,000 a year.”

“Our fingers are crossed that they can meet that obligation to the city,” he said. “By increasing that by about another $243,000 or $244,000 a year, if I remember correctly, I have serious reservations about whether they can handle it.”

He questioned whether the driving range would be the “panacea” it has been portrayed to be, and said if it is not, the city winds up on the hook.

“I don’t want to be in that position,” he said.

Already, he pointed out, things are not as advertised when the Authority chose Total Driving Range Solutions to build the facility.

“We had been under the impression that the developer of the driving range would be bearing most of the cost and suddenly that seems to be out the window,” Kimmel said. “… The financials raise serious red flags in my mind.”

Comments

32 responses to “Perone: Oak Hills bond won’t stick if city rejects master plan”

  1. One and Done

    “I’m not in favor of taking on more financial obligations for the city at this time,” he said.
    .
    Well Mr. Mayor. You said it. Now let’s see if you mean it. By some counts you just spent 3.1 million on some sports fields the other night. Or is this not a financial obligation the city will have to repay?
    .

  2. anon

    Not a golfer but a city golf course is a quality of life issue, adds to the value of a town.

  3. EveT

    Can the $1.5 million from the state be used to remediate the soil at Oak Hills from the leaking oil tanks? And to repair or replace the broken boiler in the restaurant building? These issues have been in the minutes of OHPA meetings for months but it doesn’t look like anything has been done.

  4. peter parker

    Oak Hills project should not happen, and this money should not be taken for that projedt. Let private investors pay for Oak Hills if they want the dirving range. A waste of money. The city will never see any profit from Oak Hills. Let the state put that $1.5 million toward the Metro North bridge that needs to be replaced.

  5. One and Done

    The anti-golf crowd’s silence on spending $3.1 million on ball fields at a middle school completely discredits the position they are taking on looking this gift horse in the mouth.
    .
    Full service golf courses add to the value of a community. Put in the range and start a first tee program and let our youth learn the positive aspects of a wonderful game.

  6. LWitherspoon

    @Mark Chapman
    .
    I’m confused. Would the City have to pay back the $1.5 million? To me the term “grant” means that we wouldn’t, but the involvement of the Bond Commission raises the question of whether or not there will be a debt that must be paid.
    .
    One wonders what political gamesmanship might be at play. It seems odd that a City’s Mayor and State Rep wouldn’t be told of the grant before it goes to the Bond Commission. Is Cafero, a Republican, trying to put Mayor Rilling in the difficult position of rejecting free money from the state to improve a town asset?

    1. Mark Chapman

      @LWitherspoon

      We have been told the money is a grant from the state, not a loan. As for Mr. Cafero’s motives, we can’t speculate.

  7. piberman

    The “silence” of Democratic Legislators other than Rep. Perone on the $1.5 Golf Gift from Gov. Malloy speaks for itself. Democrats traditionally have been proud of genrating “gifts from Hartford”. Why their silence now ? Were they kept out of the “loop” ? Or are they waiting to see “which way the winds blow” before commenting ? The silence of Republic Legislators is also intersting. Are they, too, embarrassed that a departing Legislator leader has pulled a “fast one” to interfer with appropriate City agency approvals ? They haven’t commented either on the same departing leader’s paid position as a “pitchman” for the proposed Norwalk Mall. It sure is curious that City Legislators have lost their tongues. So hats off to Rep. Perone. He seems the only Legislator with a clear sense of “public service”. Maybe other Legislators and candidates can “find their tongues”.

  8. Don’t Panic

    @Eve T,
    OHPA has taken the position that the City should pay for the remediation. If the leak pre-dates the 1998 lease, then the city is responsible. If after, then OHPA is responsible. Nobody can really know because the testing was not done at the time, because the Master Plan that was supposed to have been done at the time was not completed AND what was done for a master plan did not include this crucial testing. OHPA has taken the position that the city as landlord needs to pay for it at past meetings. There does not appear to be a record of them deciding to fix it themselves, though there was some discussion during the public hearings on the new master plan. Perhaps it is part of the master plan to do the remediation, but the state should be careful about issuing a bond to an agency that is failing to meet its obligations under the lease and may be in violation of its previous agreement with the state relating to the original open space grant used to partially pay for the land acquisition back in 1966.

  9. The Family Guy

    An informative article just appeared at http://www.cnbc.com/id/101860445 by CNBC’s Mark Koba. It is titled “Golf is on the decline in the US because…” It states that in 2013 only 14 new 18-hole golf courses were built in the US, but 157.5 closed their doors for a net loss of 143.5 courses. This should indicate something about the OHPA master plan.

  10. EveT

    @Don’t Panic, you make a very important point: “the state should be careful about issuing a bond to an agency that is failing to meet its obligations under the lease and may be in violation…”
    Another question is, what did the OHPA members know about this state bond money, and when did they know it? Is there any mention in OHPA minutes that state funding might be forthcoming?

  11. Very Concerned

    What is the story with the leaky oil tanks at the golf course.

    Has this been resolved?

  12. M. Murray’s

    If the driving range doesn’t happen, they should build a yourh center or motorcycle trails so kids have a place to go at night and have activities

  13. DeeeeMoooo

    “The anti-golf crowd’s silence on spending $3.1 million on ball fields at a middle school completely discredits the position they are taking on looking this gift horse in the mouth.”
    .
    Bingo! Anyone who ever believed their position had anything to do with finances should think about this. Many of us recognized early on that it was about a bizarre obsession with killing our golf course. Golf isn’t important to them so why would they care if it is important to other Norwalkers? Just be shrill until you get your way. That’s how local politics work.
    .
    This $3 million cash outlay by the city (it’s not a grant from the state, it’s actual local tax dollars going out the door!) would have already drawn the ire of several anti-golf commenters on this site if their previously-stated positions were even remotely close to their true motivations.
    .
    Maybe some anti-golfer will chime in now, two days after the story broke and two days later than their normal mobilization time of 0.2 seconds for anything golf-related, with a newly modified and shortened manifesto about why everything is OK except the golf course because their real position is that they don’t want a golf course no matter what.
    .
    At least that would be honest.

  14. Spanner

    Leave it to Larry to uncover the Democrats for a comment odd how someone can retire and still run a great Norwalk show.like Norwalk democrats need anymore division before an election. .

  15. Suzanne

    To all of you who believe that everyone believes that the issue at Oak Hills is not a financial one:
    *
    As an individual who does not support financing Oak Hills with a grant or in kind loan or not meeting past debt service (in addition to remediating oil tank leakage), I don’t particularly agree with the sports field expense either. (See? One can not agree with one thing and not agree with another and be a pragmatist about these things.)
    *
    I wonder, if the golf course is meeting its expenses through fees as stated by the OHPA, why do they need to monetize it further with a driving range?
    *
    And, why can’t kids play until its dark and be done with it? Artificial turf isn’t even healthy. Plenty of kids’ leagues throughout the country do not have artificial turf or lighting at night (heck, MLB stadiums didn’t have night lighting for a very long time.) Spending this money on a sports field feels like entitlement as much as spending taxpayer’s money or state grant money on the golf course.
    *
    The kids don’t need this more than they need classroom funding and the golfers don’t need to enhance an already beautiful public course when other needs in Norwalk that effect every taxpayer are not being met.

  16. LWitherspoon

    @Mark Chapman
    .
    Thank you. So it is theoretically possible that Oak Hills could build their driving range with the $1.5 million grant and $1 million in private developer financing, without taking on any additional debt.

  17. TomReynolds

    Hmmmmm. . . I wonder if the Mayor and Perone would like the votes of the 5,000+ people who support Oak Hills. THAT is the number of people who receive the Oak hills newsletter on a regular basis. I know that, at least, the Mayor would not be in office if those 5,000 went to Moccia. Probably the same for Perone.
    One would think that they should seek the TRUE facts about the OHPA and the Master Plan before commenting. It could come back to haunt them.
    The politicians in Hartford believe in helping one of Norwalks best (and most profitable) parks. It’s a shame that our local officials are being swayed by a very vocal MINORITY. The voice of 5000 may be laying in wait.

  18. Bill Wrenn

    Those of us opposed to a state subsidy for Oak Hills are not anti-golf or part of a vocal minority. We are representative of the silent majority in this town who believe that the state has many more important things to spend money on than a pie in the sky driving range.

  19. TomReynolds

    It’s a state grant, not a subsidy. Maybe some of the money will go toward planting a tree. That should make the Wrenn’s happy.

  20. Just a silly tax payer talking……

    I say we close the golf course down and open up a beautiful Mosque with rolling hills – a quintessential New England postcard is what I see!

    Ahhh, I can see it now…..

  21. Suzanne

    Actually, we are paying for state grants – where do you think the money comes from?

  22. LWitherspoon

    @Suzanne
    .
    Yes it’s our tax money. I’m confident that Norwalk residents send more to Hartford than the City receives back from Hartford.
    .
    If we refuse to accept the $1.5 million, do you think Hartford will give Norwalk $1.5 million to spend on something else? Most likely the money disappears. So rejecting it to make some kind of statement would be akin to what Tea Party crazies in some states do when they reject Federal Aid to make a point.

  23. Suzanne

    Not exactly. This was specifically tied to Larry Cafero with Mr. DeRocheres (sp?) working in the background. There is nothing to say that Mr. Cafero would not change the request and be more responsive to Norwalk’s real needs. Your analogy could also be akin to, “They asked for food they didn’t need but when they asked for food they did need, we turned them down. Let them starve!” I think the difference between unneeded aid to the golf course versus falling light poles due to rust and crumbling sidewalks makes a compelling case to turn this $1.5 million into a grant for something more urgent.

  24. Don’t Panic

    @DeMo,
    There were people who have spoken at the driving range who came out against the ball field boondoggle. But they did it at a public hearing not on the boards.
    .
    @murray,
    A youth center would probably violate the open space grant restrictions. Motor cycle trails would probably violate the parks plan and the POCD.
    .
    However a youth ball field would not and would invite youth to use the park, not just adult tennis and golf players.
    .
    A public pool would probably be an open space use and Norwalk sorely needs one

  25. Don’t Panic

    @TomReynolds,

    I wonder if the Mayor and Perone would like the votes of the 5,000+ people who support Oak Hills.
    Oak Hills is not in Perone’s district, and it is likely only a small number of the players live in his district. How many of those five thousand are Norwalk residents? How many of THOSE are registered voters? How many of THOSE are actually willing to have their vote hinge on the issue of Oak Hills?
    .

    One would think that they should seek the TRUE facts about the OHPA and the Master Plan before commenting. It could come back to haunt them.
    .
    What, pray tell, are the TRUE facts of Oak Hills? Do you claim knowledge that the public doesn’t have in the records of OHPA?
    .

    The politicians in Hartford believe in helping one of Norwalks best (and most profitable) parks.
    .
    Believing it is profitable must be one of those “true facts” you refer to. For years, Mr. Cafero has called out the Democratic leadership on budgets that contain debt as not being balanced, and not being in surplus. The profitability of Oak Hills (for the first time in years) depends upon this same kind of debt servicing. Apparently debt is bad when government uses it, but good when businesses use it…oh wait, OHPA *IS* a government entity.

  26. Tom Reynolds

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAA

  27. Don’t Panic

    I notice Tom Reynolds still hasn’t come back with any of those TRUE facts that nobody else seems to have access to–even some members of OHPA..

  28. One and Done

    The rest of the city’s parks cumulatively lose about $2 million a year in operating costs net of revenues and that doesn’t include debt service.
    .
    Oaks breaking even over the last three years. If they didn’t have to pay off the $3 million for the oversized, out of place, out of touch Alex Knopp albatross of a restaurant they would actually be profitable.
    .
    The state has picked much worse projects and the kind of money we are talking about here is probably stolen every month from all the NEON type agencies across the state. The golf haters need to give it a rest already and worry about real waste.

  29. Suzanne

    The entire city park system lost “just 2 million dollars” while Oak Hills “broke even” in the last three years? What was that $200,000 loan from Norwalk last year to Oak Hills to meet expenses during the winter?

    Real waste: signal poles so rusted they fall leaving signal lights on the street on a major thoroughfare; crumbling sidewalks throughout the City leaving some impassable to the disabled and elderly; boarded up businesses in SONO that can’t make a go of it in Norwalk; pot holes and roads so damaged, you have to drive down the opposite side of the street (like in Mexico, I might add), so as not to damage your car; a sewage treatment center that has questionable emissions into the Sound; no subsidies for the Norwalk Y, available to EVERY demographic, in order to stay open to all citizens; rising taxes and fewer services including pre-school programs to attract working families.
    *
    There is a plethora of issues that need that grant more than the privileged few who play golf, myself included. It is an embarrassment that entitlement plays over real needs, real infrastructure and business problems.
    *
    If the golf course is so successful, why does it need a driving range to monetize the course more? It is doing fine without it. Let a few light poles get fixed before someone gets killed. Golf does not carry that risk.

  30. One and Done

    Suzanne, by your logic we should close all the city parks then?
    .
    You might want to go talk to just a few golfers at Sterling Farms and educate yourself. The gains from their driving range have fueled all the additional services and course improvements that have made that a gem of a park. Every time I go there to hit balls I usually see someone from Norwalk and the place is always pretty busy. The range will enhance the course and let the authority make other improvements without raising taxes.
    .
    I don’t know the specifics on the recent bridge loan, but overall their debt is somewhere around what we just dumped on a middle school ball field ($3 million) that will never be repaid and will actually cost millions more in the future for its upkeep.
    .
    For the tens of billions of dollars that Norwalk has generated for this state over the years Oaks has been in existence, this is a nice little shot in the arm to help lift all of our boats. Stop trying to sink it.

  31. Suzanne

    False logic: there is no extension from your argument of City Parks vs. the Charter conditions of Oak Hills. Just none. The access to all City Parks is clear: everyone gets to participate. Oak Hills is an exclusive park for golfers only who must pay for the privilege through fees.
    *
    I have spoken with Paul Grillo regarding the benefits of the driving range: after paying the monthly rent required to the City of Stamford and maintaining the range in pristine condition, their profits are in the low 10’s of thousands of dollars. Hardly enough to create the oasis you describe.
    *
    What makes Sterling Farms different: location, location, location. Again from Paul Grillo. The Farms is situated nearby thousands of offices with many driving quickly to the golf course after work. This base for the golf course demographic at Sterling Farms is what makes them so successful.
    *
    I, too, have been to the driving range, no more than a fifteen minute drive from Norwalk, when there was one other person and when I had to wait another fifteen minutes.
    *
    This is no justification for increasing debt for a driving range when Oak Hills is apparently so successful without one.
    *
    In addition, if you had watched the Bond Commission proceedings as I did, you would have heard about the real needs of CT, including some programs affecting Norwalk.
    *
    It is just embarrassing and shameful to think golfers feel entitled to a piece of this ever shrinking pie of revenue when many other real needs are not being met in this City. No one “needs” a driving range.
    *
    That bridge is the link to the entire train transportation of the Eastern Corridor – its repair is vital and necessary. Tell those who cannot get to work on time or home at a decent hour or being bused from one station to the next to connect when the bridge is down that, oh, by the way, golf is more important than you taking a through train to home, work, or school on time.
    *
    I do not agree with the funds being spent on playing fields – another needless entitlement. One entitlement, however, does not justify another.

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