Saying that a very able town-appointed committee appears to be directing funds for outside contractors instead of handling the work itself, members of the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday voiced concerns regarding how reviews of the track and fields projects at the high school will affect public-private partnerships and volunteerism in New Canaan.
When the town first formed the Audit Committee, Selectman Beth Jones said, she was “under the crazy impression that they were actually going to do some of this auditing and stuff.”
“I did not know they would just tell us what needed to be done and pay outside people,” Jones said during the selectmen’s meeting, held at Town Hall. “I would hope they are all such financial experts and so great at this that I would love their insight on what needs to be done, rather than just handing it off and paying $16,000 to somebody else.”
She referred to funds to be paid to independent auditors who, at the request of the Audit Committee, will take on reviews of how the building projects at New Canaan High School have unfolded. The projects, partially completed, include re-turfing a playing field, creating a new turf field-and-a-half and replacing the track. Originally estimated to cost $4.9 million, with the town committing $3.9 million in bonding, the project itself was changed in June by a Fields Building Committee as higher-than-expected costs emerged. Instead of requesting more money then, the committee removed items from the project to keep it on budget, but ultimately had to disclose the overruns when it needed another $800,000 in town funding (approved last month, with reservations) to accomplish what had become a somewhat pared-down project. (The $16,000 was not voted on as a separate contract, but added to the auditors’ ongoing contracted work for the town.)
Noting that about $2 million for the project has been raised privately (by the New Canaan Athletic Foundation), Nick Williams said “it would be horrible” if the auditors’ review “throws water on the whole concept of a public-private initiative.”
“What has been lost in the fields in the cacophony of finger-pointing and blame and politicization is that we as a town had to do these things,” said Williams, who sits on the Fields Building Committee. “We had to do the track. It was in the budget for years. We had to redo the turf field. If not for the private component of this initiative, the town would have spent a hell of a lot more money, and that is lost and it is frustrating, because Beth and I were at the opening of the Fowler property. Another success. We are saving the taxpayers money and yet all we get is this … finger-pointing.”
First Selectman Rob Mallozzi said that bringing in a third-party company to conduct a review creates a different dynamic both for the town and district employees helping to oversee the NCHS fields projects as well as those volunteering on the committee.
“In the way that this is going to be rolled out, those employees are going to be talking with folks that will be paid to get to the bottom of certain things and I just think that our town employees and our volunteers—if we want to have robust and very, very symbiotic relationship with the volunteers that are raising money and helping and coming to meetings to build fields or Waveny Conservancies or EMS buildings—I think that we just need to be cognizant that there is now a layer between the folks that are elected to have those kinds of conversations and groups that are being paid to discover and opine,” Mallozzi said.
He added: “This Audit Committee is at a point where they are directing, and I see it, and it’s got to be discussed in the next administration whereby these requests have to come through the Board of Selectmen. The fact that the first selectman was not informed of any of this going on.”
Mallozzi and Williams also said the newly re-opened Water Tower Turf Field looks good and is seeing regular use. The project itself “never had a chance of going over budget,” Mallozzi said, “and so it never got back to the Board of Selectmen for a contract review, because the building committee decided to take out items rather than go over budget, which shows to me that our system works.”
“No one talks about that much,” he said. “But it works.”
Jones said it was important “not to point fingers of blame but to be able to do better the next time to avoid the same pitfalls.”
“So I think with the review of this, the main thing I would hope would come out of it would be to come up with a more concise process for public-private partnerships, really delineating who is in charge of what and how it needs to be done, with more transparency,” she said.
Williams said he hoped that “the default for any of our committees” would be not to hire outside contractors to do such reviews but to “roll up your sleeves and kind of do some of this work yourselves.”
“And certainly some of the folks on P&Z and Town Council, subcommittees on Town Council, they work their butts off,” Williams said. “And the Audit Committee is great to have in our midst, but I would just, again, I would think that the initial default to roll up sleeves and do work ourselves and then if we need outside assistance, we go there.”
Mallozzi said he is doing his best to accommodate the timetable set for the review of the fields projects, though I can be difficult to get New Canaan’s busy volunteers together.
“Let’s get to the bottom of it, let’s do it in a positive manner,” he said. “Let’s keep on the hook those wonderful volunteers and staff that have in our six years come through with every project on time and on budget, and many of them have donated funds. I think we have a lot to be proud of in six years.”
Williams added: “The level of generosity is just incredible and I do not want us to lose that as a town as we get into this.”