Two years ago, when Ellen Scalettar was thrust into the role of candidate for first selectman due to the unexpected passing of then-First Selectman Ed Sheehy just two weeks before the election. She had no idea of the challenges that lay ahead.
The Country Club of Woodbridge was losing money in the hundreds of thousands of dollars due in part to terrible weather, the Fire Association was embroiled in a stand-off with the Conservation Commission regarding the lack of permits for improvements it had made; Beecher Road School Building Committee was pressing for two-digit campus renovation, and the two mothers who had proposed a handicap-accessible playground — now slated to be opened this spring — were bogged down in red tape and lack of funds.
“I really dedicated myself to the town since being elected,” Scalettar said when reflecting on the past two years, “and I met many wonderful people along the way”. The first thing she learned, to her surprise, is how much the town depends upon volunteers to get things done. Plus she had praise for the town’s employees, who provide the services that residents depend on. “It’s a complicated job,” she said of serving as the town’s executive, “you face some tough questions”. Her background and experience as a lawyer working at the state level has been helpful, “It’s a complicated job.” she said.
With Scalettar’s help and input, the town secured a $200,000 grant from the state for the playground project – now named Pease Place — which could finally break ground last spring. The ribbon cutting is eagerly anticipated for this spring.
The Fire Association and the Conservation Commission settled their differences during a court – supervised mediation process.
The Beecher Building Committee, after bringing in ESG as a contractor, managed to bring the projected renovation cost down to $13.4 million. The first selectman organized a public hearing followed by a referendum, at which time the project was overwhelmingly approved. As a bonus for the energy efficiency measures already taken as part of the project, the town last week received $315,000 as an incentive from United Illuminating.
The town also received a $500,000 STEAP grant to pave the Beecher parking lot, which will be done once the building renovations are completed.
As part of an active energy policy, the town embarked on an energy challenge. To facilitate it, the first selectman called an ad-hoc energy task force, which not only signed on to the state-sponsored challenge, but organized a series of energy efficiency workshops.
And she recently signed the contract with the state for installation of an electrical microgrid in the center of town. The state is providing $3million toward that project.
Golf course: The most impacting aspect of her tenure perhaps is the renegotiation of the contract with Billy Casper Golf (BCG), the company that had been hired to manage the Country Club of Woodbridge. Under the new contract, BCG is focused on running the golf operation, while pool and tennis was put under the auspices of the town’s Recreation Commission. The town is paying BCG a managerial fee of just shy of $200,000, which is advantageous in two ways : it’s a fixed number to budget for and it limits the town’s risk exposure for future losses. At the same time, the company agreed to share revenue when it exceeded a certain level. The season of 2014 looked a lot better and BCG returned some $13,000 to the town.
Country Club: Even if the new golf contract bought the town time to consider its options, the real challenge as to what to do with the Country Club, its deteriorating club house, ageing pool and 150 acres of greens and trees, has yet to come. “We are looking for a solution that is fiscally responsible and preserves as much open space as possible,” Scalettar said.
When the town put out an official Request for Proposal last summer, it only received two responses from developers, one of whom withdrew in January. What’s left is a proposal from the Toll Brothers company for 179 units of age restricted housing, with a green buffer around the perimeter of the property and, if desired, a nine-hole golf course.
Even though the first selectman has been taking a lot of heat for even considering development on the property, she feels the residents have a right to hear the proposal, even if an earlier Toll Brothers proposal for a piece of the property along Woodfield Road had been voted down in 2011.
Many other options are being suggested, such as approaching universities (Scalettar said schools will not be paying taxes) or allowing commercial uses (“I’d be very surprised if that is what the neighbors would like”), besides which the property and the RFP have been widely advertised and talked up.
.“We have one proposal and people should hear about it,” she said. After all, the ad hoc committee, which looked into the proposals and consisted of people of different backgrounds and political affiliations, recommended the Toll Brothers proposal to the Board of Selectmen. Whether this proposal is for too many units or whether the proposal does maximize open space, those are important factors to consider. In the end, “town residents will make the decision,” she said. “We cannot sell property without the approval of town residents.”
When considering the proposal and its financial implications, residents also need to keep in mind that the town is close to its (unofficial) bond limit in order to maintain the Aaa bond rating, she said. Even if the credit rating agency Moody’s in its report erased a cautionary note about the Country Club debt after the town had renegotiated its contract with Billy Casper Golf, the town has limited options to meet identified needs, as additional bonding could jeopardize the town’s credit rating.
Future debt: “We’ve been talking about the Town Center Plan,” Scalettar said, referring to projects like the police facilities in the Center Building, once the town’s elementary school; and the renovation of the old fire house, for which the town most recently received a $500,000 STEAP grant. As much as she would like to see these projects progress, she said it will require bonding for some of the projects, calling it “a serious challenge if we don’t reduce our debt elsewhere.”
Outreach: Scalettar has built a new relationship with Toni Harp, the mayor of New Haven, with whom she has been working at the state level in the past. The main reason they could get the Department of Transportation to review its plans for the Exit 59 interchange was that New Haven and Woodbridge acted together, she said. “It’s a benefit to both communities,” she said, “to commuters and to the business community”.
Similarly, she has pitched the Village District to the State Commissioner on Economic Development. There is potential synergy in the Westville/Village area as a commercial corridor, she said.
Building community: Very early on, people kept telling her how they miss a town center, so she has focused her efforts on enhancing opportunities for communication and building a sense of community. “I work to bring people together,” she said. The decision to keep the pool open was made in that vein; the farmers market; the enhanced summer concerts; the informational meetings. “It’s an important election,” she said, adding, “there is a big difference in tone and substance,” between her and her opponent.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent