First Selectman Robert Mallozzi and the Board of Finance took their proverbial feet off the pedal of road maintenance at the Feb. 12 BOF meeting. The board sliced a $4.5 million bond for street repairs and upkeep to $2.25 million. The second half of the bond will be used for other departments' capital expenditures.
"As a politician, the idea of calling for not doing roads is suicide, but we're in desperate place," Mallozzi, who is also the chairman ex-officio of the BOF, said in explaining his idea for how to reduce the town's operating budget while not falling behind on capital projects.
"With all the capital expenses, is this an opportunity to reallocate bonded money?" he asked at the meeting.
As the Board of Finance stares down the barrel of a 7.9 percent increase over the 2012-2013 budget, the board looked hard to find places to cut. A substantial increase in the mill rate to cover 8 percent more spending did not seem like a viable option to nearly anyone on the board.
The practice of bonding for road repair and repaving began under the administration of former First Selectman Judy Neville, who now sits on the Board of Finance and participated in the discussion. Assistant Director of Public Works Tiger Mann said over the years the program has significantly improved New Canaan's roads. The Public Works department analyzes roads and plugs data in to a system that creates an index for road quality, called a Pavement Condition Index.
"The average New England town is at an 84," Mann said. "We started at 77. In 2012 we're at an 82.2. If we stay with this (level of funding) we'll be at an 84.4."
Mann said that when a road's score is above an 80, the department doesn't generally receive complaints; however, once a road dips below that number, residents start calling.
The department requested a combined $550,000 for similar upkeep work in this year's budget for sidewalks and parking, but that number was cut to $200,000 by the Board of Selectmen during its budget meetings.
Some BOF members worried that if they reduced funding for street repairs, the town would fall behind and have to catch up in subsequent years.
"The roads are a little bit like a pension: You lose ground and then the ground you lose is compounded," said board member Robert Spangler.
Board member Judy Neville agreed that she doesn't want the state of the town's roads to deteriorate.
"My fear of not bonding it is that we'll be in the same boat from my six years, where the Board of Finance continued to cut, cut, cut," she said. "I think it's important to bond it, but I think we could slow it down."
With interest rates near historic lows (the 10-year treasury note is hovering around 2 percent), board member Paul Giusti said now is the time to borrow money.
"There's a part of me that says we should bond whatever we can bond now. We'll be faced with these same sorts of things with higher rates (later)," he said. "I'd be very reluctant to go too far on (reducing) the road program right now because this has worked."
By the end of the meeting, the board decided to halve the original bond request, and consider another $2.25 million bond for other capital expenses.
"If we stay at 82, 83 that's not a bad number," Mann said. "And it is just a number."