Newington Swears In New Council, Looks Towards Town Hall Project

Standing in a leaky town hall for which voters approved $28.8 million in bonding to replace, Newington’s newly elected council members promised to lead with collegiality as they steer the town with a Republican mayor and Democrat-controlled council.

Republican Roy Zartarian was elected to a second term as mayor, but enters the biennium in the unusual position of being both mayor and member of the minority party. Democrats won back control of the council last week with the addition of two new faces, Nick Arace, a 2010 Newington High School graduate, and Chris Miner, who previously chaired the town hall building committee. The party holds a 5-4 majority on both the council and the school board.

“It’s going to be a completely different experience from my first term, when we had the majority,” Zartarian, 70, said. “I think both sides want to see the same outcomes. We just have different ways of getting there.”

Republicans Beth DelBuono and Tim Manke were named deputy mayor and minority leader, respectively. Carol Anest was named majority leader.

Anest, 55, said the most common concern she heard going door to door was taxes, and she was “baffled” that residents voted in a Democratic majority when Republicans championed frugality.

“I still can’t figure out why. Maybe they wanted a change,” she said. “I think they saw that the Democrats brought civility to the table, and maybe they wanted to see more of that.”

“Civility,” “collegaliality” and “mutual respect” were mentioned in every one of the council members’ brief inaugural speeches Tuesday night. Zartarian said that with a Republican mayor and Democrat-controlled council, those words will be crucial over the next biennium.

“Admittedly, if the Democrats chose, they could run roughshod,” he said. “Last term, we could have done the same thing, but we didn’t — we stopped, we talked, we reached a consensus and we came up with mutually successful solutions.”

One of their first hurdles will be building a new town hall; voters approved the funding by nearly a 2-to-1 ratio. With the money approved, a project that has dragged on for years moved closer to fruition.

“It took about 10 years and three or four building committees to get this to where it is today,” council member James Marocchini said. “A lot of hours, a lot of people, and endless work.”

The current town hall, which was once Newington’s high school, dates back to 1950, and its porous roof has allowed water to seep in and heat to seep out, Zartarian said.

The new town hall will be built on the parking lot facing the current one, and the 72,960-square-foot building will include a community center with two basketball courts, locker rooms, a kitchen and multipurpose room.

“The voters have approved the borrowing, but there’s not necessarily a mandate going out right away,” Zartarian said. “Staff is going to take a look at interest rates, talk to the bond council and investment advisers before getting into the marketplace.”

A troubling wrinkle was a warning from Moody’s Investors Services, issued last month, that the bond ratings of nearly 60 Connecticut towns were in danger of being downgraded. Though Newington was not named in Moody’s list, Zartarian worries that the general uncertainty hovering over the borrowing practices of Connecticut towns could affect interest rates on the town hall project, and he wants to wait until “an advantageous time” to borrow money.

That Newington needs a new town hall in undisputed, he said. “If we kept this building, we’d be spending probably the same amount of money patching it up, operating the boilers, paying for heating that’s going out the windows or through the roof.”

“I know it’s costing almost $29 million,” he said, “but when you stop and look at what we’re getting in return, as far as reduced energy and operating costs, there’s a payback there.”

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