Ketcham reviews past year and what’s ahead

First Selectman Natalie Ketcham stands outside town hall’s entry doors. She recently took a look back at 2012 and at what’s on the horizon this year. —Susan Wolf photo

First Selectman Natalie Ketcham began her review of 2012 and the new year with the impact she foresees from the tragedy in Newtown in December, when a lone gunman killed 20 kindergartners and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Aside from the emotional impact, she said, the tragedy raises issues about school security, mental illness and gun control

“Security is more of a local issue,” she said, adding the state is grappling with how to fund mental health services with its budgetary implications while gun control is more of a national issue.

Looking at 2012, Ms. Ketcham had said it would be the “Year of the Bridges.” In a way, it was prophetic, she said.

At that time, Ms. Ketcham was anticipating the repair of several local bridges, “but the never-ending Simpaug bridge had the highest impact on Redding due to its extended closure,” she said.

The state bridge replacement project began in October 2011 with a completion date of July 2012. The bridge finally opened to traffic on Dec. 6.

“It turned out to be a beautiful bridge. I hope residents, as frustrating as it was, like what’s there. It will be part of the Redding landscape for a long time,” Ms. Ketcham said.

A town bridge project on Poverty Hollow came in on time and under budget, the first selectman said.

Although the work was done on time, it was not finished by the start of school, so the school districts had to come up with a temporary plan to get kids to and from schools.

Delayed  bridge work

This year, a town meeting targeted for the first quarter will be asked to approve a request for funds to replace the Stepney Road bridge where the road joins Poverty Hollow, Ms. Ketcham said. The town had hoped to do the work in the summer 2013.

Ms. Ketcham explained the delay, saying the bridge work qualified for a local state bridge reimbursement program — 28% of the cost. Because of program requirements, some additional steps need to be taken in the permitting process, she said.

Another reason for waiting, she said, is to not rush the contractor so the job is completed during the summer “with no school bus impact.” By waiting, it would give the contractor time to mobilize when school closes.

The project won’t go out to bid until the fall, and there will be no work until June 2014. This will give residents in the area a break by not closing a bridge two years in a row, Ms. Ketcham said.

“WMC Engineers [the town’s consulting engineers] has certified the delay will not impact public safety, and they will keep on eye on it,” she added.

Gilbert & Bennett

The first selectman also talked about the Gilbert & Bennett redevelopment project at the former wire mill site off Route 107. Georgetown Land Development Co. owns the property. Last year it announced a potential buyer for the property. According to the most recent reports, Ms. Ketcham said, the interest on the part of the potential buyer “is still active. I am hopeful we will have public information on that in the first quarter in 2013.”

The completion of intersection work in Georgetown “is certainly a contributor to the ongoing interest in the property, because this work  had to be completed before activity on the site could begin,” Ms. Ketcham said. “This is a major step forward — for both projects.”

During 2012, there were two intersection projects in Georgetown. The town project, paid for with state and federal funds, brought improvements at Route 107 and North Main Street/Portland Avenue and at routes 107 and 57. Work included new traffic signals, new sidewalks and new crosswalks.

The other project was near the intersection of Route 107 and North Main Street/Portland Avenue. The Georgetown Special Taxing District, created to oversee the redevelopment project, was in charge of the work. The work was paid for with state grants from the Department of Economic Development. Among other things, the work included the realignment of Portland Avenue with a realigned North Main Street. The traffic island at this intersection was eliminated.

All of the intersection work was required by the State Traffic Commission. With the work now completed, it positions the project well to go directly into construction almost immediately, Ms. Ketcham said.

The town’s intersection work will help ameliorate the reported traffic buildup during rush hour at the routes 107 and 57 intersection. The traffic lights are expected  to be helpful for traffic control, Ms. Ketcham said.

The newly installed crosswalks in Georgetown are “a definite improvement and will be made safer when the lights are operational,” Ms. Ketcham said. Even without the lights, she added, there “is a sense of place apparent when entering Georgetown, which is a benefit to the entire area and community.”

The use of the same lighting and crosswalks for the G&B project ties it and Main Street together, she said. The streetscape project for Main Street was completed in 2011.

Emergency preparation

As in 2011, the town had to deal with weather. Superstorm Sandy downed trees and power lines this past October. Initially, 98% of the town was without power, and many had no power for a week.

“We can’t avoid natural disasters, but we can be prepared as much as possible to handle the aftermath,” said Ms. Ketcham.

The town is assessing its emergency preparedness and making improvements where needed, she said.

Following Sandy, residents knew where to get showers and other services because communication was better, Ms. Ketcham said.

Residents, following 2011’s Tropical Storm Irene and Alfred, a nor-easter, were willing to fund the purchase of three new generators, the first selectman said.

The town’s emergency management team recommended the generators, which will be installed “shortly,” Ms. Ketcham said. One goes to the Redding Community Center.

“We have both individually as citizens and as a town worked on preparing ourselves better for emergencies,” said Ms. Ketcham, “and we will continue to do that.”

In 2013, Ms. Ketcham hopes, the Georgetown project will take off and become “a major contributor to our community life and coffers.” Once construction began, property assessments on the land would increase along with it, adding to the tax base. Back taxes would also be paid, along with current taxes.

Fiscal challenges

The first selectman said there will be fiscal challenges for budget planning from both the federal and state level because of the economy and the federal and state deficits.

“Fortunately for the town of Redding, our fiscal health is in excellent condition, with the fund balance at a very healthy level of $6 million,” Ms. Ketcham said.

“We also have a track record of approaching expenditures in a very conservative manner, but can’t escape the state and federal stage on which everything plays out.”

Recognizing this, she said, the town will again be as frugal as possible “and only support those services we absolutely must have as a town.”

The selectmen’s budget workshop for the town side of the budget is Friday, Jan. 11, at town  hall at 8 a.m.

“That’s when we look closely at each department’s revenue and expenditures for the coming year,” Ms. Ketcham said.

“While ‘all politics is local,’ as Tip O’Neil once famously said, we can’t escape the fact that what happens at the state and federal level affects the finances of our residents and our town budget. We’ll hope for the best from outside sources, and continue to meet the challenges that are within our control with a determination to bring them and keep them under control,” Ms. Ketcham said.

“Fortunately, we have many dedicated officials and volunteer citizens who are committed to doing just that, and I am confident that together we’re up to whatever 2013 has in store for us.”

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