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The turf project at Cheshire High School took another step forward Tuesday night, after the Cheshire Town Council accepted the state grant that would make the field a reality.
With a 5-4 vote, the Council accepted and appropriated the $525,000 state grant that was designated for the installation of field turf at the Maclary Athletic Complex. Republicans David Schrumm, James Sima, Anne Giddings, and Tom Ruocco voted against the motion, while fellow Republicans Tim Slocum, Andy Falvey, and Steve Carroll supported it. Democrats Michael Ecke and Patti Flynn-Harris also voted in favor of the grant.
"This has been a long time coming to be before the Town Council," Falvey said. "Anyone who takes the time to look at the (current) field will see it's in horrible condition. It's in deplorable condition and it's an embarrassment to the town."
Falvey insisted that the project "would not cost tax dollars" to install. According to Falvey, since the field now is in such poor shape, it would take $500,000 to redo the area with natural grass. The project, he said, would help the Town "reach its goal" without costing taxpayers money.
"No matter what we have down there, it will eventually have to be replaced," Falvey said. "This gives us the best bang for the buck."
Giddings however, was quick to point out that, while the project today might not cost taxpayers any money, in the future, when it inevitably needs to be replaced, it would be a burden on residents. In eight to 12 years, she said, the field turf could have to be replaced, and never before in Town has such a large project been funded by grants and donations.
"My concern in taking on this project isn't the installation cost. It's the unknown replacement costs," she explained. "I have not seen the Board of Education take any action on how to fund the replacement."
Giddings referenced ideas such as fundraisers throughout the year or an increase in ticket prices as ways to fund the replacement, but nothing has been formalized yet. Giddings said she didn't want a "large or nagging" problem and she was concerned with the built-in need to replace the field in a decade.
As part of the lengthy motion, the Council accepted the grant, but also stipulated that "the balance of funding" for the project would come outside of Town and Board of Education resources. A group of volunteers, who have been fundraising since March, have raised $240,000 for the project. According to Bob Behrer, who chairs the field turf committee, the community seems willing to raise the remaining balance of the money as soon as a commitment is made by the Town Council. According to Behrer, the hope is to have construction begin following graduation in June. The group would work with the Public Building Commission to craft a bid package, and also examine the track replacement project as well. However, the track portion would not be funded through the grant or donations. Behrer was adamant that, when the group receives bids this spring, they would be able to raise the balance of the money needed to install a new field, which could be as much as $100,000 or more, within 60 days.
"I am so confident in that," he said.
The Board of Education will also be setting up a permanent field turf committee so that, over the years, the project doesn’t "fall through the cracks," Behrer said.
The field is so compacted in the middle that it's like playing on concrete, explained Ecke, whose brother coaches the Cheshire High School football team. He said there is "such a risk of injury" and even concussion, for playing on this type of surface.
"These new fields have less incidents of concussions than falling on compacted mud," he said. "This would make it safer for our athletes. This is a worthy project."
Sima said he planned to keep quiet, but he had to share a bit of information he obtained.
According to Sima, who said he spoke to a contractor recently, to replace the field at the high school would cost approximately $100,000. Additionally, Sima was concerned that, by redoing the field, it would open up a liability to the Town in the form of Americans with Disabilities Act compliance upgrades. He also felt the turf committee was "backtracking" on funding the replacement before the project was even approved.
Carroll, who replaced former councilor Tim White in the fourth district, may have been the deciding vote. White is believed to have been opposed to the project, while Carroll was in favor of the motion. He said if this project were to go out to referendum for the voters to decide, it would probably fail, because recreation projects aren't viewed as necessities in this economic climate. With that said however, "there are no tax dollars" at work for this project at this time, Carroll explained.
"It's time we give the group that brought this project so far along their due," he said. "The state will spend this money on a recreational field, whether that's here or someplace else."
Ruocco said he has been opposed to the project from the beginning because of a lack of transparency. He recalled a number of years ago requesting funding through the state, but being turned down. Then, the grant appeared without a request from the Town Council a year later.
"I believe this grant was obtained in non-transparent ways," Ruocco said. "There has been a sour taste in my mouth from day one."
Judy Senft, who is handling fundraising for the turf committee, said when she asked to help out, she thought it was going to be incredibly difficult. However, she found the support in the community to be overwhelming.
"I expected this to be a nightmare, but it's been a pleasure," she said. "I never would have thought we'd be where we are. This has been the easiest (fundraising experience) in the hardest economic times."
Slocum said this motion relieves taxpayers of some of the financial responsibility.
"We have set a very high bar, which these volunteers have pledged to reach," Slocum said.