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Michael Barnes

August 31, 2016 GMT

New Milford Mayor David Gronbach sprung a proposal on the Town Council to sell the East Street School property which has been in town hands for 100 years and forced a quick vote to list the property. Why? What’s the rush?

The town’s Plan of Development doesn’t call for a sale. Our Board of Education occupies that building and must approve moving its offices first. The Mayor hasn’t talked to the BoE about moving yet and it’s rumored they have to be out by November! The Mayor provided no budget backing his idea, nor even a rough outline of what he is doing other than stating that everybody knows he is moving some town offices into the old John Pettibone School.

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At the last Town Council meeting, Councilman Scott Chamberlain stated last November’s election was a “referendum” on transforming JPS into a “jewel” of a municipal center. He didn’t mention previous professional studies showing millions of dollars of improvements were needed. The Democrats campaigned to reopen JPS as a school last election, not spend millions on a municipal center. Everybody in New Milford government already has offices — only the Probate Court is in dire need of additional space.

Even if selling town property is a great idea, does it deserve a thorough evaluation to determine what’s best for the town? Not according to our Mayor and two members of the Town Council in on his secret wishes. It cannot be called a secret plan because there is no plan. The Mayor admitted as much at the last Town Council meeting by saying he has no numbers for the cost of moving municipal offices into JPS.

After obtaining public approval, the previous administration hoped to sell the more valuable JPS property and create a BoE capital fund for projects or to offset the cost of additional space should school population increase. Should this option be weighed against selling the East Street School or should debate be squashed for political reasons? If East Street is sold and offices moved to JPS, then the school system ends up not only with no school, but also no money! Does the BoE deserve some say in this decision? What’s the effect on downtown businesses of such a move? What’s the effect on moving town offices over a mile out of town on those people who need social services? Why don’t residents get an opportunity to ask these questions?

Councilman Chamberlain let it slip that Democratic insiders have been getting information prior to the rest of the Council. When discussing the Mayor’s surprise plan to lease land at Sullivan Farm to a company wanting to install solar arrays, most council members complained they didn’t have time to review the lease or investigate the legality of leasing town-owned open space set aside for farming and recreation to a private company.

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Chamberlain argued they had since Wednesday to review it, but the rest of the council didn’t receive it until Friday for their Monday meeting. Nevertheless, Mayor Gronbach, Chamberlain and Councilwoman Mary Jane Lundgren pushed for an immediate vote to approve the lease, including numerous tries at a parliamentary procedure to stop other council members from even asking questions of the Economic Development Director. In the end, only Chamberlain and Lundgren voted to lease right away while the rest of the council voted to give the Sullivan family (who donated most of the land) a chance to voice their opinion. Why weren’t budget numbers and legal opinions given to all council members prior to forcing a vote? Why weren’t stakeholders consulted?

The Mayor’s idea of rebuilding JPS as a municipal center should have been in this year’s budget so taxpayers could vote on it. Why wasn’t it? Since there’s no money budgeted to refit JPS, the Mayor is trying to get every penny he can to do it off-budget. He tried to raise sewer fees 300 percent and also tried to cut back the Turf Field project for extra dollars but was stopped.

Mayor Gronbach, along with Chamberlain and Lundgren, tried to get extra money by eliminating health insurance for non-profit daycare workers who are administering a state grant providing daycare for low-income families. That attempt was delayed for now by the public outcry and the council hasn’t made a permanent decision yet. The Mayor is even using kids from the Youth Agency to clean up JPS to divert budget dollars.

Obviously, the Mayor wants to sell East Street immediately because he needs the money to fix JPS and keep the cost hidden from taxpayers who may want to see the budget first.

Maybe this move really is a good idea, but we’ll never know if we don’t see the plan.

Michael Barnes, a New Milford resident, is chairman of the Republican Town Committee.