Home » Budget battles and weather events dominated 2011

Budget battles and weather events dominated 2011

WINSTED — It was a roller coaster year in many ways for the town of Winchester, which saw many changes happen in town.Changes at the government level included the election of new selectmen, a Board of Education chairman stepping down, plus a new town manager and a new school district superintendent named.It was a year when nature exerted its mighty grip on the area, from pulverizing snow storms causing headaches for residents, to a hurricane and even a late October nor’easter.There were plenty of events that brought together the community, from a Penguin Plunge, to fall festivals. There were also plenty of political controversies, from debates concerning funding the school district’s Minimum Budget Requirement (MBR) to the controversial rejection by the selectmen of a conservation plan by the Winchester Land Trust. This is the way it was for Winsted in 2011:On Jan. 3, Paul Vayer, who served as town manager during the 1990s, was sworn in as the interim town manager. Vayer was chosen in the midst of a town manager search that started in August 2010 when town manager Wayne Dove announced he would step down in October 2010. In March, the selectmen voted to hire Michigan native Dale Martin as the new town manager. After his term expired, Vayer would go on to file a discrimination complaint with the the state department’s Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities against the town for its hiring practices. As of the end of the year, the complaint remains unresolved.On Jan. 6, the town’s School Building Committee began discussions about closing one of the school district’s buildings. Before the start of the 2011-12 school year, the committee was expected to close one of the three town-owned schools: Hinsdale, Batcheller or Pearson. The proposed closure was due to the Board of Education’s decision to move the town’s seventh- and eighth-graders to the semi-private high school, The Gilbert School. However, at a meeting on April 29, the Board of Education voted against closing a school building. The vote went along with the recommendation made by Superintendent of Schools Blaise Salerno.The year’s first major snowstorm occurred on Jan. 11 and 12. The storm piled up more than 2 feet of snow throughout the area. This was the beginning of what turned out to be a very snowy winter. According to the National Weather Service, 48.9 inches of snow fell during the month of January. In early February, all three school buildings in town were ordered closed for several days by the building department due to heavy amounts of snow piling on the roofs. On Feb. 7, in a controversial action, the Board of Selectmen voted 4-3 to reject a plan by the Winchester Land Trust to acquire conservation restrictions on 360 acres of town-owned land. The plan included the trust acquiring a conservation easement on 356 acres surrounding Crystal Lake, which is the town’s main drinking water reservoir, and the Algonquin State Forest. The land trust also planned to acquire a conservation easement on 4 acres near Highland Lake. The money the land trust would have paid the town came from a state grant of $500,000, which was awarded in December. The town would have received roughly $400,000 for the easements, but the land would have remained owned by the town. The plan was originally approved by the selectmen on Jan. 3, but objections were continuously raised by Selectman Ken Fracasso who questioned the plan on multiple fronts. Fracasso asked the board to defeat the proposal over a myriad of issues, including whether or not the selectmen had the authority to grant the easement.Another selectmen who voted against the Land Trust proposal, and who also voted against the consensus of her political party, was Lisa Smith. In an interview with The Winsted Journal published on Feb. 18, Smith said she would not be switching political parties. However, Smith said she had resigned from the Democratic Town Committee. By the time November’s municipal elections rolled around, Smith lost her re-election bid, receiving less than 600 votes.On Feb. 12, 119 people took the Penguin Plunge up at Highland Lake. The event raised over $55,000 for the Special Olympics. It was a very cold 30 degrees, but plungers were dressed in all sorts of outfits, from sailor suits to bathing suits, from men dressed as Pamela Anderson in “Baywatch” to women dressed up as cowboys, the event had a vibe that was a cross between a New Orleans Mardi Gras and Halloween.At the beginning of March, Winsted’s local cable television provider, Charter Communications, announced it would no longer be sending staff to cover municipal meetings. “Providing someone to film a meeting is not what a public access station is supposed to do,” Public Access Coordinator David Whitney said. “Our job is to get the public involved and have the public shoot meetings and shows.” Coverage of local meetings ceased and would take months to resume with community support. On March 10, the Winchester Board of Education ratified a three-year contract between the district and The Gilbert School. In 2010, the board voted to move the district’s seventh and eighth grades to Gilbert, beginning with the 2011-12 school year. The board voted 5-3 in favor of the contract.In late March, The Winsted Diner, a town icon that originally opened in 1931, closed unexpectedly. Jean Bauer, who purchased the diner in August 2007, laid the blame for the closure on the economy. “It’s a real shame,” Bauer said. “There’s nothing I could do about it. I had no choice. I financially put everything I had into the diner, but I always ended up behind.” The diner, which was previously owned by Bob Radocchio for more than 33 years, was gutted by an electrical fire in December 2005. Bauer worked for more than a year to rebuild the diner, but she kept the original counter, stools and ceramic tile floors, which date back to 1931. By the end of the year, the diner remains up for sale.April was the beginning of a fierce budget battle between the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Education. On April 13 at a budget hearing, the Board of Selectmen officially approved a total town budget of $30,732,523. At the hearing, the selectmen approved slashing $2,820,561 from the school budget. The town side of the budget approved was $11,402,127, while the school district side was set at $18,600,000. Selectman Karen Beadle made the motion for the cut and cited declining enrollment rates and problems obtaining information from the Board of Education. “For the last two years we have struggled with getting any firm numbers from the board,” Beadle said. “There are two grades going to another school where they are getting new books and the tuition went down. The [school] budget did not even have firm numbers for transportation. I think it should get them through.” As expected, the Board of Education did not take the selectmen’s decision well and, on April 19, voted to pursue legal action against the town for cutting $2,820,561 from the school budget. “The purpose of the legal action is to enforce the minimum budget requirement [MBR],” Board of Education Chairman Kathleen O’Brien said in an interview after the meeting. Despite the lawsuit, on May 28, by a margin of 128 votes, voters passed the proposed budget. In late August, acting Commissioner of State Education George Coleman wrote a letter to the town siding with the school district, requesting that the town provide $1,358,149 to the school district, which is $91,317 less than the originally determined MBR.High gas prices were a major concern in April as prices rose to $4.11 a gallon by April 25. The price marked an 84-cent rise from the beginning of the year, when a gallon of gas averaged $3.27. The unrest in the Middle East was to be a major factor in the high prices, as well as the continuing decrease in value of the American dollar. By the time the year ended, gas prices fluctuated downward to an average of $3.41 a gallon.On May 13, the past came alive at Whiting Mills as photographs by Frank H. DeMars were shown with an opening reception of a month long exhibit of his work. According to his official biography at www.demarsimages.com, DeMars was born in 1872 in Colebrook and spent a good portion of his life in Winsted. Starting in 1904, he ran an art store on 700 Main St. which eventually move and expanded to 711-715 Main Street. He took a large multitude of photographs of the people and places in Winsted, Colebrook, Barkhamsted and 32 other towns throughout Connecticut and 16 towns in Massachusetts.On May 21, the 75th annual Pet Parade was held despite very rainy weather. A large number of adults and children dressed up in various outfits and costumes marched down Main Street. Some dressed as cartoon characters, others as characters from The Wizard of Oz, others as Smurfs. And, of course, there were pets of all different kinds - dogs, cats, chickens, goats, rabbits and horses. From June 10 to12, the 77th annual Laurel Festival was held. The three-day event included a party at the Knights of Columbus, a parade and the crowning of the new Laurel Queen, Madison-Kelly Peltier, at East End Park. “It’s awesome to be up here to represent Winsted positively,” Peltier said after her crowning. “I feel very blessed. I would like to thank all of the girls who were in this pageant with me. They all could not be any nicer.”On June 22, The Gilbert School held its 116th commencement ceremony, graduating 59 students. Principal Daniel Hatch extolled the achievements of the graduating class.“This is a very nice group of young people that I have had the pleasure to work with,” Hatch said. “There was never a challenge in these past four years that we could not work out together. They are an outstanding group of young men and women.”In early July, Laurel City Revamp, a nonprofit organization formed by Selectman Michael Renzullo, purchased the long vacant Capitol Products building at 35 Willow St. Renzullo formed Laurel City Revamp in 2010 for the purpose of rehabilitating distressed and underused properties. Subsequently, at a selectmen’s meeting Renzullo offered the town $25,001 to purchase the town’s tax liens on the property. The now defunct Capitol Products company has owed the town $84,203 in back property taxes since 2004. However, Renzullo’s offer would be rejected at a selectmen’s meeting in August. In December, a month after a new slate of selectmen were elected, Renzullo’s offer was approved. At a meeting on July 12, after a search that lasted several months, the Winchester Board of Education named Tom Danehy as its new superintendent. The vote was 6-1, with board member Carol Palomba casting the lone opposing vote. “I hope to take the [district] to the next level, including improving test scores and creating a learning environment where children are treated with respect,” Danehy said in an interview after he was named superintendent. “I hope to give them motivation and to get them to know their skills and talents. I also want to provide for the needs of the parents. In my education career, I have found that all parents want the best for their children, so we need to provide the environment for that.”On Aug. 9, Board of Education Kathleen O’Brien submitted her resignation. Her resignation came two days before a special meeting was to be held on Aug. 11. “There comes a time when service to your community has too high a price,” O’Brien wrote in her resignation letter. “When politics outweighs good will, then it is time to stop. Open debate and conversation about issues is the cornerstone of our democratic process. The failure to have that debate in open session perverts this process and breaks down our system. It is not appropriate to make decisions that affect the future of our children behind closed doors. I apologize to the people of Winchester for failing to live up to the trust they put in me two years ago. The truth is I was simply outnumbered.”O’Brien hinted that Board of Education members were conducting school district business via email. This led to The Winsted Journal filing a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to view emails by board members relating to board business. Acting Board chairman Christine Royer requested in Aug. that advance payment be made for any emails printed by the school district. The board would subsequently try to further impose restrictions on email inspection, which were rescinded in September after The Winsted Journal filed a complaint with the state’s Freedom of Information Commission. The paper later withdrew its complaint after the Board of Education complied with FOI laws.Tropical Storm Irene hit Connecticut on Aug. 28. Weakening from a hurricane to a Category 1 tropical storm as it hit the state, it still packed a punch, flooding out several parts of town. At the peak of the hurricane, at 9 a.m. on Sunday, Winsted Town Manager Dale Martin reported that various area roads were flooded and trees, along with power wires, were down in many areas of town. The strength of the hurricane became so great that Martin, along with Winchester Police Chief Bob Scannell, placed a travel ban within the town. Power outages in the area lasted several days.Right before Pearson Middle School opened for its new school year on Sept. 1, a long planned asbestos abatement project for the school building was completed. The project was developed by the town’s School Building Committee back in February. The committee set aside $515,000 for the project in the school district’s budget for 2011-12. The state is set to reimburse up to 70 percent of the total cost. “Students walk into school and they take pride in the building again,” Krevolin said. “In terms of physical appearance, it’s uplifting. It’s so much brighter throughout all the classrooms and the building itself.”In early September, bowling returned to town with the re-opening of Laurel Lanes. George Noel, the great-nephew of longtime owner Angelo DeSanti, purchased the alley along with his friend Doug Hausch of Las Vegas, Nev. Noel grew up in Winsted and used to play at the alley. “We are not doing this for the money,” he said. “We are doing this to be part of the community. That’s what I’m trying to do. We will keep prices for games the same as they were before because we want people to bowl.”Fall festival season was in full swing in October, with both the Winsted Fall Festival on Oct. 1 and the Riverton Fair from Oct. 7 to 9. While rain put a damper on the festivities on Main Street in Winsted, the weather was much better at the Riverton Fair, which saw approximately 15,000 people attend.October ended with the third major storm of the year, a brutal fall nor’easter that dropped heavy snow on the Northwest Corner of the state. Power outages for a week and more disrupted every kind of operation in town, from schools to businesses. Gas stations were closed, many stores did business using candlelight, traffic stop lights at intersections were shut off all throughout town and downed power lines were seen on many streets. The Blanche McCarthy Senior Center was open throughout the storm and in aftermath to offer hot meals and a shelter to residents without heat or power.Finally, on Nov. 8, the town held their municipal election. After a four-year hiatus, Maryann Welcome received the most votes to the Board of Selectmen with 1,158 votes and was subsequently named the new mayor. Fellow Democrats Candy Perez, George Closson and Michael Renzullo were all re-elected to the board, along with former Board of Education member James DiVita. Republicans Ken Fracasso and Glenn Albanesius were also re-elected. “I’m excited,” Welcome said after her election. “This is the first time that I’m going to be on a board where I’m in the majority. We are ready to get to work on funding the MBR (minimum budget requirement for the school system), as the community has said it wants, and getting the audits of the school system done. I am ready to get back to work.”

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