State and local officials representing Rocky Hill insisted they weren’t trying to block a new public health laboratory planned for their town when they outmaneuvered Gov. M. Jodi Rell Tuesday and stalled almost $70 million in state bonding for the project.

Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, and Sen. Paul R. Doyle, D-Wethersfield, also said election-year politics weren’t in play. The legislators and Rocky Hill Town Manager Barbara Gilbert said they only wanted a one-week delay to respond to an anonymous scare flier that has left visions of unchecked, deadly viruses swirling in their constituents’ heads.

“There’s no desire to kill the project,” Gilbert said, referring to the $75 million, 110-square-foot public health lab planned for construction on 22 acres near the state Veterans Home and Hospital and a residential neighborhood on West Street. The project, which has been under development for much of the last decade, is designed to replace the aging state lab a block from the Capitol in Hartford.

Rell after the vote 3-16-10

Gov. M. Jodi Rell expresses her displeasure after bonding commission vote

Rocky Hill officials and their legislators appealed to the administration last Friday after a scare flier began showing up on doors in apartment complexes, condominiums and single-family homes near the new lab site, the town manager said.

The flier opens with the headline “Meet Your New Neighbors,” underneath which are pictures of the viruses that cause tuberculosis, Q fever and the St. Louis encephalitis. The latter two are highly infectious diseases transmitted by airborne particles or mosquitoes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

No contact information for the flier’s author is given, though it contains a line that reads: “A public service announcement from Construction Workers for a Safe Environment.”

William Gerrish, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Health, said the new lab would incorporate state-of-the-art safety and security features. The scary-sounding “bio-safety level 3” materials cited in the flier are the same viral, fungal and parasitic disease agents that are tested at the existing Hartford facility and at public health labs in nearly every other state, he said.

Nonetheless the flier, which also featured a picture of a skull and crossbones and the tag line, “coming soon to a neighborhood very near you,” sparked a series of worried phone calls and e-mails, Gilbert said. “This was intended to scare the living daylights out of people,” she added.

“When something like this is going to my constituents, it’s my job to represent them as best as I can,” Doyle said, adding he shared the flier with the administration. “All I basically said was: ‘Can we have a little time for an informational hearing to explain things?’”

When the Rell administration indicated it wouldn’t remove $69.4 million in project construction funding from Tuesday’s State Bond Commission agenda, Guerrera and Doyle appealed to other Democrats on the panel.

Though the legislature is responsible for targeting capital projects and other initiatives to be financed through long-term borrowing, the bond commission has sole authority to determine when, and if, state government is fiscally healthy enough to release funds for various individual projects.

The governor, who chairs the 10-member bond commission, has considerable influence on the panel. The executive branch’s chief budget agency, the Office of Policy and Management, sets the commission’s agenda. Two of the Rell’s top appointees, OPM Secretary Robert L. Genuario and Public Works Commissioner Raeanne V. Curtis, also hold seats on the commission.

The four highest ranking legislators on the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, two from each party, also serve on the bond panel. The ranking Republicans on the committee, Sen. Andrew W. Roraback of Goshen and Rep. Vincent J. Candelora of North Branford, sided with Rell and her top officials Tuesday in voting to release the funds.

The top Democrats from the finance committee, Rep. Cameron C. Staples of New Haven and Sen. Eileen M. Daily of Westbrook, pushed to table the measure.

The remaining three seats on the bond commission belong to three other constitutional officers – Comptroller Nancy Wyman, Treasurer Denise L. Nappier and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal – all of whom are Democrats. Nappier and Blumenthal were absent from the meeting but were represented by members of their staff who were empowered to cast votes on their behalf.

The Rocky Hill lawmakers couldn’t garner enough votes to table the project funding, but they could prevent Rell from securing the six votes she needed to release the money – provided all Democrats could be united.

When the smoke cleared, the motion to release the funds died in 5-5 vote along party lines, and Rell was charging Guerrera and Doyle with “sneaking around” to stop a vital project because things were tense back home.

“It’s a typical, not-in-my-backyard” approach, the governor said following the commission meeting. “Frankly, that has to change. It’s not leadership on the part of the General Assembly.”

The project first was presented to Rocky Hill officials in April 2005, subjected to an environmental study that was published in June 2006 and granted $6 million in design funds last year, Rell said, adding there is nothing new for the community to learn about it. But state government now is at risk of losing favorable construction bids that could save $12 million, she said, adding those bids expire April 15.

Rell is not seeking re-election, but bristled at the suggestion that Democrats were emboldened to act by her lame duck status. “I’m not running for re-election but I am the governor of this state and we have a job to do,” she said.

“Did politics play anything in it?” she added. “It’s an election year.”

But Guerrera and Doyle both insisted that after the informational hearing, tentatively scheduled for March 23 at the Rocky Hill High School, they would drop any objections to moving forward with the project, provided no new information comes to light.

“We have no intention of trying to stop this project,” Guerrera said. “It’s about letting the public know what’s going on.”

Doyle noted that after the March 23 hearing, which state public health officials are expected to attend, the administration still has three weeks to reconvene the bond commission.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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