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New London - Just days before Christmas, an alarm went off in City Hall in a small corner office on the first floor. A leaky heating pipe inside the wall had filled the room with steam and tripped the alarm. But it also swelled the four-panel wooden door, which was probably an original in the 100-year-old municipal building.
Public works crews were forced to break down the door to gain access. Inside, they found walls dripping with water and mold growing on the walls, ceiling and over boxes of papers.
They sealed the room with a large piece of plywood, screwing it into the door jamb. But steam, along with a smell reminiscent of an old basement, seeps out above the plywood.
The odor is turning up the noses of workers and City Hall visitors.
"Customers come in and say the building smells musty," said City Clerk Nathan Caron, whose office is across the hall.
"This is City Hall. This is the face of the city, and you walk in and you want it to be smelling like rotten mold?" said Probate Court Judge Mathew Greene, whose offices are adjacent to the boarded-up room. At one time, the room was used by lawyers with probate business. Greene said he complained to the mayor in November.
"It was like a sauna in there," he said. "There was dripping water everywhere. It's not a healthy situation by any stretch."
Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said Tuesday the entire building is falling apart, but the city has no money for maintenance.
"This building should be condemned," Finizio said. Carbon monoxide alarms are always going off, pipes burst and the elevator frequently breaks down, he said. One maintenance worker was trapped in the elevator last spring. On the third floor, in City Council Chambers, the ceiling is falling in - residue from a leaking roof that was fixed years ago. The wet plaster was never replaced and is slowly disintegrating. Before every City Council meeting, the room has to be swept of plaster debris.
"Something has to be done," admitted the mayor, standing before the plywood door and gesturing toward the crumbling ceiling and water-stained walls of the 1914 building. But the political climate in the city, he said, is not to raise taxes, so there is no money for repairs. He said his staff is looking for grants that would provide funds for renovating historic structures.
"The building's in rough shape," he said. "It needs to be remodeled ... but you can't spend a dollar if you don't have a dollar."
Former City Clerk Clark van der Lyke, the last worker to use the first-floor room, said mold started to appear on the walls when he was there just about a year ago.
"Oh, there's black mold climbing up the walls in there," he said.
Van der Lyke, who does research and consulting for the city, was relocated to an empty office on the second floor. But shortly after he settled in, "I heard a 'drip, drip, drip and then boom,'" he said. The ceiling - about 20 feet overhead - had collapsed because of a leak in the restroom on the third floor. He's now in another office, where he brings in his own electric heater because the steam radiator is not functioning.
"We are all affected by the lack of funding," a philosophical van der Lyke said.
But those on the first floor want the pipe fixed and the room cleaned out.
"This really is a jewel of a building. It needs to treated that way," said Cathy Lewis, who works in the probate office where bits of ceiling are often found in the copier machine.
Tim Hanser, director of public works, said he asked for about $95,000 in the capital improvements budget to address heating issues and to repair the water damage in Council Chambers, but the budget has not been approved. Overall, about $1 million could be needed to repair all the problems in City Hall, he said.
Because of lead and asbestos, the city maintenance department cannot do the work. A specialized contractor must be hired, he said.
"We do the best we can. There are lot of problems with these old buildings," he said.
Eventually, the pipe in the room will have to be replaced, and an inspection of the building and entire heating system needs to take place, he said. But old buildings have big problems.
"It's relatively contained, but we're going to have to abate it all," he said of the room. "It's a perfect example of, if you don't have the ability to make repairs immediately, it ends up being a more expensive project."
Greene said there has to be money to fix the pipe and take care of the mold.
"There's no money to address this health hazard? That's baloney," he said. "There are some priorities in life you have to address."