Sunday, August 04, 2013

Taxpayers could pay more in driveway fiasco: Sikorsky Memorial Airport (KBDR), Bridgeport, Connecticut

Bridgeport taxpayers may find themselves shelling out more money for the $400,000 driveway to developer Manuel "Manny" Moutinho's mansion that they never realized they bought in the first place.

The town attorney for Stratford, which issued the project permits, said discussions are underway to settle a recent court case that determined the driveway should never have been built.

The work was paid for by Bridgeport and installed by Moutinho, who has filed an appeal delaying any orders from Stratford to tear up the driveway and buying time to try and resolve the matter.

The starting amount for negotiations? One million dollars, according to Stratford Town Counsel Tim Bishop.

Such a steep demand could just be a bargaining tactic by the Breakwater Key condominium association, which convinced a judge the driveway should go and the wetlands where it was built be restored.

Whether Moutinho -- or Bridgeport -- would shoulder additional payments to make Breakwater go away is unclear.

Enough, said some members of the Bridgeport City Council.

"I didn't know about the $400,000 as it was," said Councilwoman Michelle Lyons, D-134, echoing the sentiments of several colleagues who say Mayor Bill Finch's administration kept them in the dark on the driveway project.

"I don't think taxpayers should pay any more," Lyons said.

The council can scrutinize monetary settlements over $10,000 and formally approve those exceeding $20,000.

Councilman Carlos Silva, D-136, said Moutinho needs to open up his own wallet. "We already thought this guy's (Moutinho) got to pay the city back," Silva said. "The people of the city have been duped enough on this project."

A general discussion of the latest on the driveway is scheduled for Monday's regular council meeting.

Moutinho secured the permits from Stratford last summer to install a $200,000 gravel driveway for himself and three neighboring property owners over city land to Stratford's shoreline.

He intended to replace a dirt driveway in a right-of-way over Bridgeport's Sikorsky Memorial Airport property because it was prone to flooding and lacked fire hydrants.

Moutinho got the city's permission to shift the right-of-way to airport wetlands off of Sniffen Lane in Stratford.

Then, as Hearst Connecticut Newspapers revealed this past June, Finch's administration quietly assumed control and hired Moutinho to build a $400,000 driveway, claiming the city was seizing the old dirt one for an airport runway safety project. And since Moutinho had obtained the permits, it was quicker to use his designs and circumvent a competitive bidding process to award the job to Moutinho's Mark IV Construction firm.

Breakwater Key filed a lawsuit over the project last in September, but the city took the risk and built the driveway.

Turns out that was a bad gamble. On July 2 Superior Court Judge Dale Radcliffe ruled Moutinho could have repaired the existing dirt driveway and should not have been issued permits by Stratford for the gravel one.

Bishop, who has been staying on top of the issue for Stratford, said he understands Breakwater residents want $1 million to drop the case and allow the gravel driveway to remain in place.

"I don't think anybody in the world would ever do that. I don't know if that means there is no settlement or they were taking a shot at a really high number and will then come back with something more realistic," Bishop said. "We're not really involved in that."

But, he said, it would make sense for Bridgeport to have a seat at the table as the current permit holder.

The parties are not talking, but this week Finch's office sought to stifle accusations Moutinho ripped off the administration by doubling the costs of the driveway from $200,000 to $400,000.

The mayor's office said it solicited two post-construction price estimates. One, from Epic Construction, came in at $810,000. The second, offered by PJ's Construction, was $517,000.

Councilman Stephen Stafstrom, D-130, an attorney, was reluctant to comment on "rumors" of a settlement.

"With that all said, personally ... it would have to be some damn good justification for why the city would spend any more money on this than we already have," Stafstrom said.

Also the last thing council members need is to give political opponents ammunition in an election year.

Republican Rick Torres, who is running in Stafstrom's district, said, "I think Manny Moutinho got away with a huge one here, so if anybody's going to pay it should be Manny. This is scandalous."

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