BEACON FALLS — The Valley Regional Fire Training School, which has been without a permanent home for the better part of a decade, will eventually build a new facility on Lancaster Drive in Beacon Falls—but local officials initially found that news more bewildering than anything else, and haven’t yet sorted out its full implications.
A state bonding package released July 13 included $950,000 earmarked for the eventual construction of a school in the Naugatuck River Valley. State-level officials and fire personnel say the school will be a boon for public safety and Beacon Falls’ regional visibility, but the town’s selectmen—who all three said they knew little, if anything, about the plan before the funding was announced—worry the state-owned property, which will be exempt from local property taxes, may cost more than those benefits are worth.
The funding will cover only the purchase of four lots in the industrial park section of the town; the school’s design and construction will require future bonding, which sometimes takes several years to secure and finally receive. The bonding released July 13, for example, was initially approved in a May 2004 session of the Connecticut General Assembly.
“They key is it’s so down the road, that means 11 acres of this economically valuable property could be tied up for several years,” First Selectman Susan Cable said. “So it’s lost revenue for Beacon Falls right now, and that’s a concern because every penny counts, we know, these days.”
State representatives such as state Sen. Joseph Crisco Jr. (D-Woodbridge) contend any lost revenue could be accounted for through the state’s Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program, under which the state pays municipalities, for state-owned land within their bounds, a percentage of what private entities would pay in annual property taxes for the same property.
“I understand the selectmen’s concerns, but I’m sure if there’s an impact things will be worked out, as they are in other towns,” Crisco said Monday. “Whenever that need is there we’ll address it. … If it’s not included in PILOT, I’ve talked to my colleagues in the house and in the senate, and we’ll submit legislation if that’s what’s needed. No one wants to get penalized for doing something good. Everybody is on the positive wavelength, to try to provide a need, and to get these people trained.”
Selectman Mike Krenesky said if the state could, indeed, rectify the town’s revenue loss, he doesn’t “have a major issue with this building going in,” but added, “There’s just a lot of big question marks as to what this facility really is, how it’s being paid for and what the town of Beacon Falls will get in lieu of taxes … and just because we get compensation doesn’t mean it’s right.”
PILOT: The fine print
According to state Department of Public Works spokesman Patrick Nolan, once the state takes title to the property—which other sources said is imminent—it “will become subject to PILOT.”
The program is administered by the state Office of Policy Management and allows the state to compensate towns with up to 45 percent of what private owners would pay in property taxes if they owned the state land in question (except in the cases of correctional facilities and the Connecticut Valley Hospital facility, for which towns receive 100 and 65 percent, respectively). PILOT appears to be specifically designed to address the very issues raised by the selectmen regarding the fire training school and the loss of tax revenue.
The undeveloped land on Lancaster Drive has an assessed value of $545,550, according to data obtained from the assessor’s office in Beacon Falls. That means in fiscal year 2010-11, the four lots—numbers 1, 2, 3 and 5 (street numbers 20, 24, 28 and 32, respectively)—are worth a total of just less than $14,000 in tax revenue under the recently-approved, 25.6-mill property tax rate.
The undeveloped land will increase in value once the training school is built there, and Beacon Falls will see up to 45 percent of the site’s potential tax revenue as its value increases, since the Office of Policy management disburses PILOT payments according to yearly valuation and tax rate filings submitted by municipalities.
But according to OPM spokesman Jeffery Beckham, rarely do PILOT payments work out to the 45 percent figure outlined in the statute, because OPM is, like every state agency, subject to fluctuating state appropriations.
“If there are insufficient appropriations to pay for all the PILOT payments statewide they have to be reduced on a pro rata basis,” Beckham said. “That happens quite often—in fact, it’s the rule, not so much the exception.”
So while Beacon Falls this year could, statutorily, be due a PILOT payment of over $6,000 dollars (assuming the land transfer goes smoothly), it could work out to much less than that.
“The very year that they apply for it, [the town] tells us ‘This is the property, it’s worth X, we would be assessing it at X amount of taxes; under the statute we’re due a PILOT payment of X percentage of the tax,’” Beckham said. “On an annual basis, OPM turns around and says, ‘Well, this is how much the legislature gave us to spend on the program. We don’t have enough to give you the full statutory percentage you’re due for that property; we’re going to give you something less than that.’ That’s what happens most years.”
Crisco said he and the delegation would “give it 110 percent to make sure there isn’t a penalty for doing this. There should be a reward,” he said. “Just like in all my other towns, whether you have a park or a hospital or educational institution, there’s a payment in lieu of taxes.”
At any rate, town officials will need to apply for PILOT funding through OPM to receive any tax-alternative compensation from the state. Cable said she hadn’t looked too deeply into it as of this week.
“I know we would get it every year but I don’t know how that would work, what we’d have to put in,” she said. “I mean there’s a lot of hurdles for that to go through. It’s not a guarantee. So again, my concern is, I don’t know anything about this new state-of-the-art type of school—I know the Valley needs a school and it would be nice to house it. I think there could be better locations as opposed to 11 acres of our industrial park. From what I can anticipate it also is very close to our over-55 village. And that concerns me.”
‘It’s not like the old days’
Almost ten years ago, the Valley Council of Governments designated O’Sullivan’s Island in Derby a contaminated brownfields site and told the Valley Regional Fire Training School, which operated a facility there, to pack it in and move out. Two site cleanups funded by EPA grants administered through the VCOG were conducted, and the site is now a Derby town park.
“There are several things. They claimed we contaminated it,” said Charles Stankye Jr., treasurer of the Valley Regional Fire Training School.”Prior to [our being there], it was a city dump. And there were industries in the Valley that dumped a lot of stuff in drums. The first time they started to clean it up they dug up I don’t know how many steel drums, and lord knows what was in them.”
Stankye declined to comment on whether the training school may have contributed to the site’s contamination. But one thing is for sure: those were the days when fire training schools burned oil, tires and other substances which emitted black smoke and pollution. It’s different now, Stankye said.
“There’s no more black smoke,” he said. “DEP will not allow burning of tires or oil or gasoline, any of that. None of that. All the burning now is wood, primarily old wooden pallets, and when we burn inside a building, sometimes we throw hay in there to create smoke so that the firefighters have the actual experience of being in dense smoke where you can’t see anything. It’s what we call Class-A burning.”
He said some of the newer schools even use gas burners to create heat to help simulate the real experience for firefighters in training.
As to Cable’s concern about the over-55 community—Krenesky said the proximity also worries him, as he owns property at Pond Spring Village—Stankye said the school would not be close enough to the village to cause a problem.
“That’s probably, I’m guessing, as the bird flies, about 1,000 feet away,” Stankye estimated. “The big thing is we do not burn black smoke anymore. It’s not like the old days. … I think most of what [nearby residents] would be bothered by is a lack of knowledge of what’s going on. It’s evenings, some Saturdays, but the noise is just a fire engine running. There’s no sirens blaring or any of that. It’s an engine running and pumping water.”
Stankye added he had previously considered a property abutting the village but dismissed the option out-of-hand when he found out about the senior community. In all, he considered about a dozen properties since 2002, he said. The Board of Directors for the training school—which comprises representative of each area fire department—chose the Lancaster Drive tract because of its availability, industrial setting, access to utilities and proximity to Route 8, which runs through most of the training school’s member towns.
“It’s easy access for all of our member towns,” Stankye said. “You have to remember, we train mostly volunteers. For somebody to work all day then come home and have to be at class from 6-10 p.m. … that’s an awful lot to ask of somebody.”
He said the training school will offer a wide array of courses to firemen, including (but not limited to) Firefighter I and II, Hazardous Materials, Pump Operator and Aerial operator in addition to a driving course through the Department of Motor Vehicles and training for RIT emergency standby units.
“We have RIT [training], which is for an Immediate Response Team,” Stankye said. “That’s where there’s a crew standing by just in case somebody needs help. They’re on standby until somebody needs help. That’s who went in and got those two firefighters out of the house in Bridgeport [on July 24], was their RIT team.”
Selectman Dominic Sorrentino declined to comment on the prospective fire training school, saying he knew “nothing about it except what I’ve read in the paper.”
Both Cable and Krenesky said some of their uncertainty about the project arises from their feeling that they hadn’t been adequately included in a conversation with the administrators of the fire training school or the state delegation.
“There’s a lot of unknowns, and we haven’t been part of any conversation with respect to that,” Cable said. “My biggest concern right now is that wherever we go from here, we are informed and part of the conversation. I would say maybe several years ago a passing remark was made. It wasn’t official business, it was like, ‘What about the industrial park?’ … it wasn’t that we were being consulted, it was just that [the school’s directors] were looking for viable places.”
Stankye, on the other hand, remembers the past several years differently.
“That is not true, or politicians have a very short memory,” he said in response to claims that town officials weren’t formally included in discussions. “I personally met with the first selectman, over the past six years, I’ll bet you four or five times, in her office, about pieces of land in Beacon Falls.”
Asked for a rebuttal, an audibly irate Cable responded, “First of all, we never met four or five times, ever. I know we met once. I know who [Stankye] is. … If we talked a second time, and perhaps we did in the last five years, I can’t tell you that. But I know it hasn’t been five or six times where we’ve sat down. That’s bullcrap. As far as them actually negotiating and buying a piece, I don’t know when they did that or when they thought about doing it. I never knew how much money, I never knew the amount of land, and I never even knew Crisco put in for a bond, until—until—I read it in the paper. I know when I’ve really negotiated on a project. I have a list of the projects I’m working on.”