YEAR IN REVIEW: Tragedy, challenges and success in 2014 for Shelton

It’s been a year of both tragedy and forward steps in Shelton.

While a massive fire and the murder of a teenager brought much sadness, 2014 also was when the schools started full-day kindergarten and a new animal shelter opened.

Following are the top 10 stories of the past year.

Downtown fire

The cause may never be known, but the damage done is well understood.

A fire that started late on the night of Jan. 5 destroyed much of a historic downtown block that included about two dozen apartments and a half-dozen storefronts.

Quick action by city volunteer firefighters prevented any loss of life, with some upper-floor tenants being rescued by tower ladders.

The blaze left a big gap in the heart of downtown, at Howe Avenue and Bridge Street, and the future of a few longtime businesses is still in limbo a year later.

After the fire, the community rallied around the victims, donating clothes and other items to help people get back on their feet.

The fire’s cause was undetermined, although the blaze is believed to have started in the basement of the four-story wooden building that dated back to the 1800s.

The Matto family, who owns the land, plans to move ahead with a proposal to rebuild on the site. The new Phoenix Apartments would combine more upscale apartments, retail stores, community activity space, and offices.

Kristjan Ndoj murder

On the night of March 15, Kristjan Ndoj was shot in a driveway in the city’s Pine Rock neighborhood. The 15-year-old Albanian immigrant died five days later in the hospital.

The Shelton High sophomore was remembered by his family as “a bright boy and naturally gifted athlete.” One friend described him as “a sweet, innocent kid.”

The school community came together to honor his memory, tens of thousands of dollars were raised to help his family with expenses, and an overflow crowd of mourners attended his funeral at St. Joseph Church.

Kristjan was “a teenager who stood out for being so kind,” Monsignor Christopher Walsh said during the service.

More than nine months later, the crime remains unsolved. Kristjan had ridden his bicycle with a friend to meet with other friends at a house on Agawam Trail.

He was shot in the head and leg while in a driveway, and police concluded the shots came from a nearby wooded area. The state police are handling the investigation.

The state has offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case; people may call 800-842-0200.

Full-day kindergarten begins

This year’s biggest budget battle involved trying to start an all-day kindergarten program in the Shelton public schools.

The Board of Education (BOE) backed the idea and included full-day K in the proposed school budget. City officials generally were open to the idea but said the BOE had to figure out where the money would come from within its allocation.

The situation became contentious in May when a no-tax-increase budget was passed by the Board of Aldermen. Most city officials insisted the budget included funds for full-day K, but BOE members didn’t agree.

In early June, an agreement was reached between city and school officials so that full-day K would begin in the fall. Essentially, the city was to make $500,000 available for school capital costs to free up an equivalent amount in operating costs to pay for full-day K and other expenses.

School Supt. Freeman Burr said full-day K is “a tremendous benefit to our students,” helping ensure that more youngsters succeed in later grades.

The 2013-14 budget now in effect also eliminated the unpopular pay-to-participate fees for sports and many other extracurricular activities in the schools.

Sharon Scanlon is sentenced

Sharon Scanlon, the city’s former assistant finance director, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison in early February for stealing $914,000 from the city over a decade.

Scanlon also was ordered to pay back at least $231,000 to the city, and she gave up her pension.

She admitted guilt to one count each of first-degree forgery and first-degree larceny as part of a plea agreement.

Shelton residents and city officials heard Scanlon publicly admit wrongdoing for the first time, during her sentencing in state Superior Court in Milford.

“I’m truly remorseful,” she told the court, offering apologies to her family, former City Hall co-workers and fellow Shelton residents.

“I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to make amends for this crime, both financially and emotionally,” said Scanlon, then 49.

The judge said that while Scanlon had many positive qualities, her crime was “planned,” “deliberate” and “reoccurring.”

New animal shelter opens

The city’s new $1.4-million animal shelter was ready in September, although moving animals into the facility has taken a bit longer.

The shelter at Brewster Lane and Riverdale Avenue replaces an antiquated shelter just down the road. The new 6,000-square-foot structure was eight years in the planning.

It includes 26 state-of-the-art cages and four quarantine cages for dogs, a new cat “condo” room for up to 20 felines, an adoption area, and offices for staff.

“It’s so warm and homey looking,” said Gail Craig, who served on the building committee chaired by her husband, Gerry. “One of the main goals is to promote adoptions and get animals into the loving homes they deserve.”

The new shelter is designed to provide a safe and secure environment for lost and stray animals, promote and handle pet adoptions, and offer opportunities for humane education.

Rep. Larry Miller’s death

In late May, longtime state Rep. Larry Miller died of cancer at age 78.

Miller, a Republican from north Stratford, had served in office since early 1991. He represented the 122nd District, which includes almost half of Shelton.

“He wasn’t afraid to stand up for things,” said Mayor Mark Lauretti.

“He really cared about people and he took his service very seriously,” said fellow state Rep. Jason Perillo.

Miller was known for promoting unique causes. He also focused on protecting the environment and improving the business environment.

A special election to replace Miller took place in late July, and Republican Ben McGorty of Shelton was the victor. McGorty went on to win a full two-year term in the November election.

Among other priorities, McGorty said he wants to “continue [Larry Miller’s] work as a fiscal watchdog in Hartford.”

Lauretti statewide run

Mayor Mark Lauretti decided to seek the Republican nomination for governor, and impressed many with his fund-raising abilities.

Lauretti touted the low taxes and big commercial tax base in Shelton, and his managerial experience as a mayor. “Look at the track record,” he said. “I’ve lived it. I’ve worked it. I’ve mastered it.”

But he received little delegate support at the GOP state convention, and then decided to run for lieutenant governor as part of a team with another gubernatorial candidate, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton.

Lauretti needed to secure 8,190 petition signatures to get on the Republican primary ballot for lieutenant governor, but even with the help of Boughton’s campaign — offering some petition circulators $2 per collected signature, which is legal — he fell short by the deadline.

“I think we made a heck of an effort,” Lauretti said.

The statewide Republican ticket eventually lost to Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who won a second term.

Fixing the local roads

People may like their low taxes in Shelton, but many people aren’t so thrilled with the condition of their roads.

In November, Shelton voters overwhelmingly approved borrowing $5 million to fix and pave roads. The bonding referendum question passed by a lopsided 82%-18%.

It was the fourth time in recent years that city residents have approved bonding to do road improvements.

The work is ongoing — and expensive. The city has 216 miles of roads, and has upgraded or paved about 110 road miles in the past three and a half years, according to public works officials.

The city can complete about 30 miles a year, depending on weather and the severity of the winter.

The city has been purchasing equipment to do more of the work itself, and the goal is to get all roads in good shape so a program of ongoing maintenance and repaving in six-year cycles can be implemented.

Mayor Mark Lauretti said the city needs to focus on the roads after concentrating more on open space, school buildings and other needs. “Now the roads need our attention,” he said.

School security upgrades

Improvements are being made to Shelton schools to improve security, with more work planned at three schools in particular in the near future.

Some parents, however, questioned the pace of the upgrades in the aftermath of the Newtown school shooting in December 2012.

This led to limited contention between city and school officials on the need to keep parents better informed of what was taking place.

New digital surveillance camera systems were installed at the five elementary schools, and security ballistic window film and mesh, designed to help combat bullets, weapons and intruders, has been added at five schools.

A more complex project to upgrade entryways, door locks and windows at three older schools is still being pursued, with an architectural and engineering firm hired to oversee it.

Funding for improvements has come from the state and the city.

New Riverwalk section

The newest section of the Riverwalk opened in the early summer, offering a 900-linear-foot walkway off Canal Street north of Bridge Street.

The new part — known as Phase Two — is near the Birmingham condos and Avalon apartment complex, and doesn’t connect to the previous section in Veterans Memorial Park (the Slab). Construction work had started on Phase Two in the late fall of 2013.

It is a similar brick path with decorative lighting along the Housatonic River, but is much shorter than the previous section. That should eventually change when the Riverwalk is extended farther toward the dam at the northern tip of Canal Street, as redevelopment of the old industrial waterfront continues.

Plans also call for extending the Riverwalk between Veterans Memorial Park and Bridge Street.

Mayor Mark Lauretti said people like having the Riverwalk. “They can now enjoy the beauty of a river that people hadn’t really seen for 100 years because the area was industrial,” he said.