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The Democratic Council majority squashed a motion from the minority caucus on Tuesday night that would have reallocated an artificial turf grant to be used for new locker rooms.
Republican Councilors felt the $525,000 artificial turf grant would be better used to replace the boy’s locker room at Cheshire High School. Money for the project was approved in this year’s Capital Budget and will be subject to voter approval at referendum next month. The four Republican members of the Town Council felt the burden on taxpayers would be lessened if a grant could be used instead of asking the taxpayers to pay for the project.
“We’ve identified a pressing need and this money can cover that,” explained Republican Tim Slocum, who crafted the resolution. “The turf committee has done work, but there are no firm cost estimates. This could be poor planning, and we have a history of that.”
Slocum was referring to the Cheshire Community Pool, as he said a turf field could not be covered entirely by a grant and upkeep and replacement costs need to be factored in before moving forward. Also, Slocum was concerned that the referendum language for the locker room replacement project was too vague, which led to some skepticism in the public, he said, that the money could eventually be used for turf.
Democratic Councilor Michael Ecke said it “takes a leap” to assume the locker room money would be used for a turf field just because the language “including, but not limited to,” the locker rooms was part of the referendum. He said that was never proposed by the Board of Education and did not think it was their intention to do so.
Republican Tom Ruocco said reallocating the grant to be used for the locker rooms would fix a “pressing need and a priority.” He said that doing so would not eliminate the possibility of a turf field, however, he believed the project should be put out to referendum for the public to decide if CHS gets turf or not. He was also concerned that the Town acquired the money through State Representative Mary Fritz, from what Ruocco called the state’s slush fund.
“The grant was never pursued by the Town,” Ruocco said. “I know there is support for the field, but the grant would cover the (locker room) project.”
Town Hall was filled with turf supporters, from coaches to parents. All but one spoke in favor of the turf grant, with many suggesting the motion was simply a political ploy with the election nearing.
“I can’t believe we are on this subject again. You folks are out of your mind,” said resident Robert Daly. “This is why people don’t like political season.”
Matt Bowman said grass fields should only hold 35 events per year to prevent wear and tear, but the field at Cheshire High School holds over 125 annually.
“It’s deteriorating and deteriorating rapidly,” Bowman said. “We need this facility and we need it now.”
In February 2008, the Council, along party lines, accepted the turf grant. Around that time, an ad-hoc turf committee was formed, through the Board of Education, to look into the health risks and other issues surrounding the installation of artificial turf. Periodically, the committee has provided updates, but has yet to present its full findings to the Town Council.
Democratic Councilor Laura DeCaprio felt it was disrespectful to the committee to dismiss the possibility of a turf field without even hearing their findings.
“You don’t have to agree with the results, but you need to be respectful and listen,” DeCaprio said.
Rob Oris, a member of the ad-hoc committee, said he was upset that the Council would even consider taking the grant away and “totally disregard the work we’ve done.” He was also concerned with the poor quality of the field at CHS.
“The field cannot take the use we put on it, we need to invest in these facilities,” Oris said. “It’s political season and this is nothing more than grandstanding.
Ecke agreed, saying that he was embarrassed for the Council.
“If there was not an election in November, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now,” he said.
Democratic Councilor Matt Altieri explained that he spoke with Fritz recently, about the possibility of reallocating the grant to another project. He said he was told that the Town could lose the grant entirely if it pursued that possibility.
“Could we do it? Maybe, but we could lose the whole grant,” Altieri said. “I am not willing to take that risk.”
Sue Zentek was the lone dissenting voice from the audience who agreed with the Council minority. She believed the request was “reasonable” and money that could be used for eventually replacing the turf field could be used to hire more teachers.
“Is the turf field a need? If you say yes, then you value athletics over academics,” Zentek said. “I’m not sure how you can justify spending on a turf after making cuts to the (education) budget.”