Saturday, June 08, 2013

Sikorsky Memorial Airport (KBDR), Bridgeport, Connecticut: City -- No federal funds used on Moutinho driveway

By Brian Lockhart
Connecticut Post
Updated 12:41 am, Saturday, June 8, 2013

BRIDGEPORT -- City Hall insists Bridgeport tax dollars, not an alleged misuse of federal funds, paid for developer Manuel "Manny" Moutinho to build a $400,000 gravel driveway through city property to his mansion on Long Island Sound in Stratford.

That's the same driveway that got Sikorsky Memorial Airport Manager John Ricci suspended from his job this week after Hearst Connecticut Newspapers asked the mayor about Ricci's longtime business dealings with Moutinho.

True, the federal government is footing 90 percent of the $40 million safety upgrade at Sikorsky Memorial Airport, which Mayor Bill Finch said required replacing the old dirt driveway used by Moutinho and three neighbors.

Although questions have been raised this week that the city may have spent federal dollars building the controversial driveway, the mayor's office disputed that claim Friday.

"There has been no federal money used for the driveway reconstruction work," Finch spokeswoman Elaine Ficarra said.

She said the $400,000 was included in a $3 million bond the City Council authorized borrowing Sept. 17 for its 5 percent share of the long-awaited safety work at Sikorsky.

Bridgeport, which owns the airport, has been battling with Stratford, where the Sikorsky Memorial Airport is located, over runway improvements since eight people died in a plane crash in 1994.

Ficarra has corroborating documents. She provided an Aug. 29 memo from the city's Office of Policy and Management to the council's budget committee seeking to borrow $7.9 million for six different projects, including $3 million for Sikorsky renovations.

Ficarra also presented a related resolution that went to the full council that refers to the $3 million expenditure, but a driveway was not specified.

But in contrast, some of the vague and confusing council committee minutes from Sept. 17 seem to indicate the city was counting on a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration to cover much of its $3 million share.

Ricci told members of the council's economic and development committee that he "received approval from the mayor to enter into a grant agreement for $2.4 million" and the city would pay a 5 percent local match of about $125,000.

The economic development and budget committees met around 6 p.m. on Sept. 17 to pass the Sikorsky package on to the full council, which then took it up later at their 7 p.m. meeting.

The budget committee minutes from that night also refer to an "application for a $2.4 million grant from the FAA."

Several council members this week said they were never told about a $400,000 driveway.

"I knew something was going to pop up," said Councilman Andre Baker, D-139, the only member of the 20-person council to vote "no" in September. "I knew something was going to be missing. This was it."

The city's decision to invest in a 1,000-foot-long, 20-foot-wide driveway off Sniffen Lane in Stratford for Moutinho -- and hire Moutinho's Mark IV Construction to build it -- was revealed Monday by Hearst.

For years, those shoreline properties have been granted an easement by Bridgeport for a right-of-way over a dirt driveway running across airport land to Main Street in Stratford. Moutinho had already planned to build and pay for a new driveway himself because the dirt one flooded.

Bridgeport agreed to shift the easement further east along Main Street to Sniffen Lane, and Moutinho last summer secured the necessary permits from Stratford.

"I thought Manny was going to go ahead on his own expense and put the road through," said Joan B. Brady, 78, who with family owns half an acre of vacant land near the driveway entrance. "We figured it was for the best."

Moutinho is a longtime Bridgeport personality who has battled the city in court over various properties. In Trumbull, his dispute with the town over allegedly faulty sewer work is being probed by the FBI.

Hearst revealed this week that he and Ricci share a friendship and business relationship that dates back to at least the 1980s. They have also been involved in property transactions over the years, as recently as 2012.

By September, the city -- in a decision spearheaded by Ricci and Finch's legal team -- decided to take over the driveway and hired Mark IV after Moutinho supplied the cheapest of three quotes.

The Finch administration this week said the city needed to remove contamination from the old dirt driveway and close it to install Sikorsky's new runway safety area. And that, the administration said, meant the city owed Moutinho and his neighbors a driveway, even if Moutinho was already moving forward with the job himself.

Sara Bronin, an associate professor with the University of Connecticut School of Law who specializes in property and land use law, Friday reviewed a copy of easement documents Hearst obtained from Stratford.

Bronin said while the city had the right to move the easement, she saw no language that said Bridgeport was obligated to maintain or pave the right-of-way. In fact, she said, the burden to maintain access was on Moutinho, his neighbors and their predecessors.

"The city has agreed simply to allow the private property owners to pass over. In this document, the city has promised little else," Bronin said.

Bridgeport does not exactly have $400,000 to spare. The city, in the latest financial report from March, is anticipating a $2.5 million deficit when the 2012-13 fiscal year concludes at month's end.

The mayor Wednesday suspended Ricci with pay -- he earns $94,000 a year -- after Hearst questioned Ricci's decades-long friendship with Moutinho and his numerous real estate dealings with the developer. The matter is being investigated internally for any conflicts of interest or inappropriate behavior, Finch said, adding he was unaware of the relationship between the two men.

Brady learned Bridgeport paid for the new driveway two weeks ago. She has met with Nicholas Owen, who is in the real estate business and also assists Moutinho, because her family may put their property on the market.

"That is when he (Owen) said, `I've got good news ... The city of Bridgeport is going to put the road through," Brady recalled.

A Milford resident, she was surprised given her knowledge and past interactions with Bridgeport.

"I've heard they're broke, number one," Brady said. "And two, when we inquired how to fix the (dirt) road, the city of Bridgeport was never interested in doing anything."

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