Chairman’s View: Town inconsistent when partnering with private funding

[UPDATED WITH CORRECTION Sept. 14.] Town councilman Bill Bach gave us the Bach amendment in 1997 (Article 2, Chap. 125 of the Town Code) outlining how New Canaan should think about capital projects. In short: “Take no donation that comes with an open-ended liability” or at least costs not fully understood. We do not understand the Bach amendment. Nor do we use it consistently. Consider:
A guest column from New Canaan Town Council Chairman John Engel.
Turf Fields. It’s clearly a Town responsibility to provide fields, yet private money built Dunning Field. This year private money paid for 78% of two new turf fields (Water Tower 2 and 3), zero for the replacement of the original turf field (Water Tower 1), 53% of new baseball fields, and about 17% for the new track and field.
The Town Council will create a new Enterprise Zone in October that lays the foundation for a public / private mix of fields improvement and maintenance. The goal is to lay out clear standards and responsibilities, encourage optimum use and save money for replacement.
  1. Library. Town is paying 74% of operations this year. Their capital budget has always been 100% their own. Now, the Town has helped purchase adjacent land and pledged to be a partner in the new building. Good. How much is fair? And can we afford 74% of a world-class library? Can we afford not to?
  2. Irwin House. The first selectman wants to rent it to non-profits as they are priced out of the downtown. What would Mr. Bach say? Irwin capital needs are substantial but we don’t have many options here. It’s not a joint venture; it’s a rental in a park. Same with Brick Barn. Public Private Partnership rules shouldn’t apply to rentals.
  3. Irwin Barn. Could this be the permanent home of Summer Theater of New Canaan? They say they can raise the capital, an exciting proposal. We should be encouraging this kind of proposal in our parks, unlike the…
  4. Brick Barn. The Preservation Alliance proposed trying to take on 100% of the capital needs and ongoing maintenance. The Council split on the vote. The Selectmen promised to work with the Alliance, keeping an open mind if this space could be a community asset.
  5. Waveny Conservancy. When the Council slowed trail improvement the Conservancy was there to see it through. This sets an odd but not unwelcome precedent. When Town doesn’t pay, private funds will.
  6. Paddle Court. Town agreed to pay $70,000 when it had assurance private donations would pay about $30,000.
Let’s not imply that a high private-money percentage guarantees Town support. While there are no hard-and-fast standards, the Town must provide private partners with more clarity. We should draft a memorandum explaining the considerations the Town Council will take when we consider investment or co-investment. 
The requirement of an endowment fund is too high a bar, whether we are talking new fields or old barns. We need flexibility to achieve common sense results.