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.”