Finance board talks trucks

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NAUGATUCK — Borough residents waking up to a winter wonderland full of ice scrapers, snow shovels and damp loafers may soon see a new sight on their slippery morning commutes—a brand new single-axle dump and plow truck.

Public Works Director Jim Stewart said the new dump truck (above), which will cost $172,350 over five years, can handle a variety of tasks.
Public Works Director Jim Stewart said the new dump truck (above), which will cost $172,350 over five years, can handle a variety of tasks.

The joint boards of mayor and burgesses and finance approved Tuesday evening the purchase of the truck off a state bid for $172,350. The vote passed almost unanimously; the only voice of dissent was that of Burgess Mindy Fragoso, who would have liked to explore alternative financing options.

As it was voted upon, the truck will be paid for on a five-year lease, which will accrue an estimated $4,000-$5,000 per year in interest.

Public Works Director Jim Stewart requested the purchase approval due to the almost-unserviceable condition of the primary plow truck for Rubber Avenue Extension, Gunntown Road and other nearby streets.

That truck is a 1983 Mack, and though it’s been badly rusted for some time, Stewart said, the frame rails finally cracked this year, making the vehicle unfit and unsafe for service in the fleet. The cracked frame would cost about $40,000 to repair.

And in the case of a vehicle that has already exceeded its “life expectancy,” Stewart said, it makes little sense to pay big bucks for a structural repair when the engine or transmission could go at any moment.

It was the same debate many of us have internally when an old, high-mileage car breaks down and requires significant maintenance: Is it even worth fixing?

Stewart’s answer was no, and the joint boards agreed.

And though $172,000 seems a large sum in a tight budget year, officials believed the purchase of a replacement truck was necessary.

“We are a little cash-strapped,” noted Mayor Bob Mezzo, “but we have a significant need here.”

Other solutions were explored. Stewart said he tried to find a contractor willing to take on the old Mack’s route but no one was interested; while the borough will pay contractors $120 per hour this year for single-axle plow truck service, the state pays more like $135 or $140 for the same service, and other municipalities are also paying more.

Had a contractor been found, the truck could have been purchased next year at about a $4,000 savings.

The seven-yard capacity dump truck has seen only 1,500 miles. It is equipped not only as a plow truck but also as an asphalt truck for other seasonal work. Further, it will be the only truck in the fleet capable of pre-treating roads with liquid calcium, a de-icer.

The other trucks can only pre-treat with salt and sand, and Stewart said these materials often get blown to the curb by passing traffic before a storm even hits.

Plowing wasn’t the only public works concern at the joint boards meeting. Finance Board member Matthew Katra expressed his overall reservation about last month’s approval for Stewart’s department to enter into purchase negotiations for two new garbage trucks with robotic pickup arms.

The vast majority of that cost will be paid for by a $792,281 settlement from a class-action lawsuit filed by 70 municipalities against the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, which claimed the authority overcharged them for garbage processing to cover a bad loan made to Enron, the energy giant that collapsed in 2001 amid accounting scandals. The cost would further be offset by an $87,000 state energy grant.

But Katra saw the settlement money as a potential protection against a number of financial problems coming down the pipe and wondered why, in the current economy, the borough is upgrading garbage trucks.

First of all, Katra noted, the Board of Education deficit may need to be at least partially plugged by borough-side money. Additionally, a cut in municipal aid proposed by Governor M. Jodi Rell could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue (see cover story).

“Maybe the Board of Education will find this miraculous solution before Christmas, and state funding won’t get cut,” Katra said, “but until then, we should hold off.”

Finance Board Chairman Ray Lennon, Jr. and Mezzo both noted that the borough shouldn’t be held up by problems at the BOE.

“We need to continue to move forward in our plan for the future,” Mezzo said, regardless of what’s “going on down the street.”

The joint boards generally agreed that it’s bad financial practice to use one-time revenues—the $790,000 settlement, for example—to cover operating costs, like the BOE’s budget deficit.

Katra tried to put his thinking into a different context: If you win the lottery for $1,000, he said, and you can’t pay the electric bill that month, you’re going to use that $1,000 to keep the lights on rather than to pay for a one-time cost that might be a relative gamble—like new waste disposal technology.

Finance Board member Nathan Hein was unsure about the investment, not because he felt the settlement money could be used better elsewhere, but because he doubted the potential cost-savings of the new robotic arms.

The projected savings in manpower and workman’s comp claims, he said, are unknowns, and may well be offset by the costs of training workers to use the new equipment and to maintain it.