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Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, February 27, 2014
Stonington selectmen authorize security cameras at former school building

by Rich Hewitt

Selectmen on Monday, February 24, approved the installation of security cameras at locations around the former school building in an effort to reduce vandalism.

The board also will consider adding the security cameras at other sites around town that have been the target of vandals in the past.

The town recently replaced security cameras on the fish pier, and Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris said she had obtained price quotes from the same company for security cameras at the former school building, the public pier (focusing on the bathroom area), fire station, and the town garage.

All of those areas have been the targets of some type of vandalism or theft at some time or other in the past. The playground equipment at the school has been repeatedly damaged; sand has been taken as tools and equipment are sometimes missing from the town garage area; the bathrooms have been repeatedly vandalized, and people have gotten into the fire department, Billings-Pezaris said.

Most recently, someone climbed up the fire escape at the school building and tried to break in there.

Selectmen supported the idea of monitoring the buildings but balked at the high cost. The security cameras don’t come cheap. The fish pier cameras cost the town $8,600.

The quote for the school building—which would include as many as seven cameras—was $3,528 for high-resolution analog cameras, and $4,900 for high definition digital.

For the fire department, the cost would be $5,870 and $7,300, and for the town garage, $4,000.

Billings-Pezaris noted that the town didn’t have to do all the areas at once, but could approach it piecemeal. Selectmen focused initially on the former school building, which currently houses several business tenants in the former classroom areas.

“The tenants would like to see it,” she said.

The board questioned why they would need so many cameras. But, as they identified the specific areas that would need to be covered, it became clear that, while they might be able to trim the number slightly, it will take a number of cameras in order to monitor the entire area.

Richard Larrabee supported the idea of installing cameras at the school building, and Donna Brewer said she’d like to have a way to catch whoever has been damaging the playground equipment.

Chris Betts expressed concern about the number of areas in town that were being considered for the security cameras.

“Pretty soon we’ll be videotaping the whole town,” he said.

But, he also agreed that it was important to provide some amount of security at the former school building.

“The tenants pay good money up there and they deserve good security,” he said.

The board voted unanimously to install the analog cameras around the former school building.

After a lengthy review of the options available, the board also approved the purchase of a Peterbilt truck for the highway department that will be used primarily for sanding and plowing the town roads. The total cost of the truck is $151,295 which includes a seven-year, extended warranty, the sander and a reversible plow.

Billings-Pezaris updated the selectmen on efforts to improve cell phone service in the area, noting that she was investigating several different options, some more promising than others. The downtown area is a “dead zone,” she said.

There are a number of different technologies that might work, she said, but each has some challenges, ranging from the willingness of the service providers to make improvements in such a small demographic area to regulatory challenges linked to overlapping frequencies.

Although cell phone coverage and improved WiFi access are two different issues, Billings-Pezaris noted that wider WiFi coverage could be used to provide cell phone access. It might be possible for the town to expand its WiFi capabilities and work with other downtown businesses who have WiFi to develop a network that could provide that kind of coverage downtown.

“Everybody is mobile now,” she said. “People who come here from away expect to have it.”

It’s more than just a convenience.

“It’s probably hurting our economy not being in the 21st century,” Betts said.

Billings-Pezaris said she will continue to collect information and to report back to the board.

In other action, the board signed several quit claim deeds for tax acquired properties, returning them to their former owners, but backed away from signing one deed for a Main Street building.

Larrabee refused to sign the deed for the former Eagull building and questioned why the town was returning the property to the former owner. The town had taken the property for non-payment of taxes, but Billings-Pezaris said that attorneys for the owner and the town’s attorney had indicated that there had been problems with the town’s notification process.

Although the town had sent out notices as required, the former owner has several different addresses. Billings-Pezaris said the attorneys, in both cases, indicated that the town could have made more of an effort to contact the owner.

The process clearly frustrated the selectmen, but Larrabee raised a question of fairness. He noted that one of the deeds they had signed had been for a former owner who had paid four years of back taxes in order to regain their property.

The Eagull owner, he said, had only paid two years and still owed for last year’s taxes.

Evelyn Duncan also noted that the town’s sanitary district also held liens on that property.

Billings-Pezaris said that the town has to make a “good faith effort” to notify people and must keep detailed records of every attempt and every time a notice is returned. With the number of unpaid taxes increasing, she said, that is becoming more of a burden for the town staff.

But selectmen were not convinced.

“This is not our fault,” Larrabee said. “He knows he owes his taxes.”

Chairman George Stevens agreed.

“If he doesn’t inform us, how do we know where he’s going?” he asked.

Despite warnings from Billings-Pezaris that failure to sign the deed could result in the town being sued, the board ended the meeting with just two legitimate signatures on the deed. Stevens had signed on the wrong line, so the legitimacy of the deed would have been questionable anyway.

The selectmen likely will review the matter at a future meeting.