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Impasse over funding to clean Town Hall in Wallingford

WALLINGFORD — The additional cleaning procedures that have been in place at Town Hall since the start of the pandemic won't continue, not because the Town Council wants to end them, but because of disagreements over where to get the money to pay for it.

Public Works Director Rob Baltramaitis told the council last week he was requesting a transfer of $15,000 to custodial services to continue the additional cleaning at Town Hall that was brought in at the start of the pandemic in 2020. The money was to come out of the regular salaries and wages account.

But the majority of council members wanted that money to come out of the American Rescue Plan Act funds the town received from the federal government to pay for additional costs incurred because of the pandemic.

Once the pandemic hit, Mayor William Dickinson Jr. authorized bringing in an additional custodian part time, as well as extending the hours of the full-time custodian by an hour every day.

"We had our offices stay open, we did not close the Town Hall. People came to work, we made sure that services were provided but we needed to provide extra cleaning in order to reassure people it was safe to be here," he said. "That was the whole purpose of it and it was an emergency to immediately deal with that.

In 2020, I authorized the contractual increase of duties to be performed by the existing vendor. It permitted that to move forward without going out to bid,” Dickinson said.

That extra level of cleaning and disinfecting needs to continue, Baltramaitis said.

"During COVID, when Town Hall was staffed, and certainly when the public was allowed back in the building, we were providing additional custodial services and an added level of cleaning and disinfecting," Baltramaitis said. "We have continued that since COVID, and with variants still around and other illnesses, we want to continue that practice." 

When working on the current year's budget, he based his allocations on pre-COVID specifications, Baltramaitis said, hoping that would be sufficient.

"I guess I was hopeful that we could revert back to a pre-COVID level," he said. "But I don't think that we're ready for that yet so I'm asking for the transfer. We do have the money available in salaries and wages from funded but unfilled positions that we've had, so with that transfer of $15,000 into custodial we can provide those services here at Town Hall."

All town buildings are cleaned by an outside custodial vendor, Baltramaitis said.

The current contract expires this year and will have to be renegotiated for the 2022-23 fiscal year.

But this fiscal year, the vendor is providing staffing at pre-pandemic levels, and Baltramaitis said the additional help is still needed. 

"What that $15,000 is getting us is the full time custodian is working an extra hour a day plus a second person part-time that averages 15-20 hours a week,” he said. "The reason we brought the second person on was really wiping down surfaces — door knobs, restrooms, etc. so a lot of those high-contact surfaces could be disinfected. That was the purpose of it. Through purchasing we were allowed to add additional services to the contract at an agreed-to hourly rate for the part-time employee. We have done it in previous years so purchasing does sign off on it."

Councilor Joseph Marrone made a motion to amend the original motion to require the funds to come out of the town's ARPA funds.

"Knowing this is a COVID expense, it seems to me this should come out of the ARPA funds," he said. "The ARPA funds are there to deal with the effects of COVID." 

But Dickinson said it wan't appropriate to do that because transferring funds from ARPA wasn't on the agenda.

"Clearly there has to be an appropriation that is also approved by the administrative branch so it's not a question of substituting one for another, it's only a question of denying this transfer. according to the charter," he said.

Vice Chairman Tom Laffin agreed. "I think the amendment is for discussion for another time," he said. "I don't want to stop the governance part of getting this all handled because that's for a larger debate, whether this is a reimbursable ARPA type of expense, so I would oppose the amendment on those grounds just to get this all moving." 

Councilor Craig Fishbein disagreed. "I am in support of the amendment," he said. "I reject the procedural flag." 

"I think it is well settled. We had a second attorney's opinion with regard to the treatment of ARPA funds. The charter is very clear," Dickinson said. "For actions within a budget year, there must be an administrative recommendation before something can be appropriated. At budget time yes, the council can make changes and vetos are possible. That is not the procedure during a budget year."

The executive branch must make the request for an appropriation from the ARPA funds, Dickinson said.  

"An appropriation from ARPA is not on this agenda," he said. “We don't have an appropriation form for taking money from any other source other than the salary line item of the department of public works."

The ARPA Selection Committee is in the process of accepting applications for funding requests from small businesses and nonprofits.

Those are expected to be awarded early next year, and after that the committee will be making recommendations on town projects that will be paid for with ARPA funds.

So while the council approved the funding coming from ARPA funds, it won't happen unless Dickinson requests it, and the mayor is against using that funding.

"I guess we'll see what happens," council Chairman Vincent Cervoni said.



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