Valley fire school funding gets caught up in politics

A sign designates the land where a new Valley Fire Chiefs Regional Training School will be built on Lancaster Drive in Beacon Falls. –FILE PHOTO

HARTFORD — A long planned fire training school for 22 Naugatuck Valley towns became tied up Wednesday in the running debate between Gov. Ned Lamont and Republicans on highway tolls and transportation funding.

Lamont suggested he would withhold bond funding for the Valley Fire Chiefs Regional Training School and other projects because without toll receipts state borrowing for transportation would eat up so much of state government’s bonding capacity.

The governor’s suggestion further incensed an already furious House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, over Lamont’s refusal of her request to have the State Bond Commission vote Wednesday to fund the planned fire training school in Beacon Falls.

She interpreted Lamont’s remarks as a direct threat to Republicans on tolls and a direct slap at her.

“See, you guys are not supporting tolls. So, now your fire school is going to get screwed, and that is exactly what he meant,” the plain-speaking Klarides said.

Her anger was compounded because the bond commission had approved $1.5 million for the Eastern Connecticut Regional Fire Training School in Windham and $410,000 for the Burrville Regional Fire Training School in Torrington for additional construction costs.

The bond commission must approve $14 million of the $26 million that the legislature has authorized for Valley Fire Chiefs Regional Training School in Beacon Falls, and governors set the commission’s agenda.

Lamont referenced the proposed Republican alternative to highway tolls several times during and after the meeting. The GOP’s Prioritize Progress plan recommends allocating $700 million to $745 million in general obligation bonds and $750 million in special tax obligation bonds annually to finance transportation projects.

Rep. Christopher Davis, R-Ellington, got no commitments during Wednesday’s meeting when he asked when the Lamont administration planned to fund the Beacon Falls project

Noel Petra, a deputy commissioner in the Department of Administration, reported the project was recently sent out to bid again, but he could not say whether the funding will ever be sought after this latest bidding round.

“We’re evaluating our options at this point,” Petra said

“I’ll add to that,” Lamont chimed in. “I mean, it depends if we’re putting $750 million a year in transportation bonding under the ‘GO’ bonds. If that is the case, we’re going to have to be very selective about what we do going forward.

“So, I’ll be able to get back to you by the end of the special session to tell you what appetite and what capacity we have to do projects like that.”

Lamont is now seeking to get the legislature to approve highway tolls in a special session. He continued to say Wednesday that he still plans to recall legislators, but had no firm or penciled-in dates in mind.

Reporters questioned Lamont about his remarks after the meeting.

“We have two ideas on the table in terms of how to pay for our transportation plan” Lamont said. “One is the Republican plan. It is called ‘Prioritize Progress,’ and that throws $750 million a year on the back of the taxpayers, and we cannot afford a lot of these other items if we put all that money into transportation on the backs of the taxpayers.”

He told reporters he was not retaliating against Klarides for her opposition to highway tolls.

“That is absolutely wrong. I have to set priorities in terms of what the most important things we can do to get this state moving again,” he said.

Yet, he also tweaked Republicans over their alternative plan.

“I think the phrase is ‘Prioritize Progress,’ and that means you going to have to prioritize, and, boy, we are going to have to be really tough on our priorities if I have to put $750 million on the GO bonds,” he said.

Klarides also accused Lamont of backsliding on a campaign promise that he and other Democratic candidates made in her hometown of Derby to fund the long stalled fire training school project.

“This has been a bipartisan issue if I have ever seen one,” Klarides said. “So, if he wants to play politics with people’s lives, he is going to have to pay the piper when the time comes because I am telling you people down here are not happy, and people in the valley they may not have all that much, but they have their word. In this business of politics, if you don’t have word, you have nothing.”