New Milford delays professional community center survey again

Photo of Katrina Koerting

NEW MILFORD — A study to determine the makeup of a community center will have to wait at least another month after it was tabled following a split vote.

The community center committee has been asking since the summer for $18,500 to pay Great Blue, a professional survey company, to determine the best approach for the town’s community center. The company’s proposal was recommended after the committee looked at four bids, called 400 households and received up to 1,500 online responses.

Council members have repeatedly delayed the request, though, asking for more information.

This time, councilman Paul Szymanski said it was fiscally irresponsible to allocate $20,000 for an unbudgeted survey when the town just made a $250,000 special appropriation for unexpected legal costs and that possible winter storms might increase public works expenditures.

Council members also differed on where in the process the market study should come. Half argued that it should the study should be done in front of the process while the others said it need to be done after concrete numbers were available for different proposals.

Council members Lisa Hida, Peter Mullen, Walter Bayer and Michael Gold approved going out to bid while Szymanski, Thomas Esposito, Katy Francis and Michael Nahom opposed. Mayor Pete Bass then decided to table it.

Esposito suggested using some of the information collected during the plan of conservation and development work to help get more of an idea about what the public wants.

Mullen disagreed because not many residents attended those meetings and said the professional survey “gives a better cross section.”

The community center committee said it did as much research as it could on its own, including researching the history of community centers in town, issuing an online questionnaire through Survey Monkey and compiling what other towns do. However, committee members say they need professional help to meet the charge laid out by Town Council to determine the proper location, organization and offerings of a New Milford community center.

Hida said prolonging the approval of the $18,500 was unfair to the committee.

“Unless you give them clear direction, you’re just yanking them around,” Hida said.

Councilman Michael Nahom said he wasn’t sure what another study would accomplish beyond the outreach the committee has already done to gauge the community’s thoughts. He also questioned the need for a community center outside of downtown.

“We didn’t have a discussion about a community center until Pettibone became the elephant in the room,” he said.

Community centers have been a controversial topic in town, stemming from former Mayor David Gronbach’s proposal to turn the former John Pettibone School into a center. Residents and elected officials took issue with how Gronbach went through with the plan without an official decision from the residents or a committee. Many also questioned the costs to renovate the building, which Gronbach said were much lower than the school district’s estimates.

Francis said “the building that should remain nameless” is separate from the study itself and the questions need to be phrased by a third party to prevent any bias about the building from affecting the responses.

She and a few other council members said the study was needed, though, so they could determine what the residents actually envision for a community center.

“Despite what I’m thinking, and my personal opinion, we owe it to the public to move forward with $18,5000 to get the research done,” Gold said.

Hida said a professional company is needed because it is able to phrase the questions in a way that will give usable data.

“Without this information we all have have an opinion and we all think we’re right,” she said. “This is the way to move forward.”