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New London's city-owned buildings haunted by decades of deferred repairs

By Kathleen Edgecomb

Publication: The Day

Published January 26. 2014 4:00AM   Updated January 27. 2014 12:06AM
Tim Cook/The Day
The ceiling outside of the New London City Council chambers in New London City Hall is cracking and crumbling with water damage, as seen Friday. Many of the public buildings in New London are showing age and are in need of renovation and repair.
Public works staffing, funding cuts blamed

New London - Fire Headquarters on Bank Street does not meet fire and safety codes.

Two-by-fours hold some windows in place. Mold grows around the shower stalls in the unventilated bathrooms.

The ceiling on the third floor of City Hall is so damaged by a leaky roof that went unrepaired for years that each morning, employees sweep up chunks of plaster that have fallen overnight. A room on the first floor, where a broken steam pipe went unchecked for months, is boarded up, shutting off what workers say is a room filled with mold.

At the Martin Center on Broad Street, which houses the Recreation Department, senior center and offices for Youth Affairs and the Water Authority, an industrial-sized plastic trash bag under a hole in the ceiling on the third-floor staircase landing catches dripping water and debris. In the senior center's arts and crafts and computer rooms, window sills are warped from years of water damage. Brown water marks stain the walls.

The city owns dozens of buildings where every day, workers collect taxes, write up zoning reports, file birth certificates and land deeds and provide programs for seniors and students. And every day, those workers and the public face environments rife with decay.

Officials are aware of the conditions, but there is no comprehensive plan for dealing with the problem.

Earlier this month, Ledge Light Health District ordered the city to clean up the vacant room on the first floor of City Hall where the broken steam pipe sent humidity levels into the high 90s and turned the room into a petri dish for mold and mildew.

The public health order highlighted the lack of maintenance over the years on the 1 million square feet of space the city owns in 31 buildings. While the infrastructure is falling apart, there is little money in the $81 million budget to address serious health hazards and building code violations.

"We've been deferring maintenance for decades," said Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio. "We've decimated the public works department to the point where it's really laughable in terms of having the staff and budget we would need to do routine maintenance, even if a building is brand new."

Last year, 12 workers were in the building and maintenance division of Public Works. In 2004, the division had 16. In the 1980s and early 1990s, up to 34 worked there, according to a 2012 Public Works Budget and Staffing History report.

In a city where half the properties are nonprofit and do not pay local taxes, the burden lies with businesses and residents to come up with the money for repairs.

Upgrades and repairs to all the city's buildings could cost an estimated $23 million, according to a 2008 report from the Public Works Department. The average age of city buildings is 54 years.

"None of the buildings have gone through any extensive upgrades/renovations in many years, and most mechanical upgrades have taken place upon emergency failure resulting in reactive maintenance instead of preventative maintenance," wrote Keith Chapman, the former public works director who compiled the report.

While a few of the maintenance projects identified in the report were addressed, most have not been. The buildings remain in pretty much the same condition as described in 2008.

"In budget requests we've made, we have been aggressively trying to address these needs, but (the requests) have never been funded," Finizio said. For example, last year he asked for $500,000 for repairs to City Hall, but the money was never approved.

"We really need to prioritize how we're spending our money," said City Councilor Michael Passero after hearing a request last week from Public Works for $250,000 to make emergency City Hall repairs. "We can't just shoot from the hip anymore. We need a list. ... We really need to prioritize how we're spending our money."

Rips, stains, cracks

During a visit to the senior center last week, Elizabeth Witter, the center's senior coordinator, pointed to peeling paint, water-stained ceilings, ripped carpets and window sills so damaged by water they are nearly disintegrating. Electrical problems plague the kitchen.

"We blow circuits every day," she said. "If you use the coffee pot and the microwave, it will blow."

Recreation Director Tommy Major, who has worked for the city going on 40 years, said he hasn't been in a "good building" since the day he started working in his first office in the former YMCA, where a hole in the ceiling opened to the sky.

"It hasn't been all that great, but I have the utmost respect for my staff. They suck it up. They love their jobs and they come in every day, and they do what's best for the community," he said. In October, the department became the first in the state to earn accreditation through the Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation Agencies and the National Recreation and Park Association. It was only one of three departments in New England to receive the national accreditation.

At fire headquarters on Bank Street, a two-bay station built in 1939 after the original building was destroyed in the 1938 hurricane, structural problems are evident in the cracked floors and slanted doorways.

Fire Chief Henry E. Kydd Jr. walked through the building last week, past administrative offices where a plastic sheet covers a bookcase and brown streaks stain the walls. Some 20-year-old replacement windows don't lock, and sashes are broken so they can't be opened. Ceiling tiles are water-stained and in some areas missing altogether, exposing the electrical wires and plumbing. In the bathrooms in the center of the building, floor tiles are coming up. The tape around the shower stalls is covered in black mold.

"I would say there's a mold situation here," Kydd said.

The door to a side yard where firefighters sometimes eat at picnic tables doesn't shut tightly because the building has shifted over the years. The sweep, which is where the door meets the floor, had to be replaced three times last year, he said.

"We have to keep out the rodents," he said. "Yes, we have mice. Doesn't everyone?"

In a 2004 report to the city manager, former Fire Chief Ron Samul said the city's three fire stations were inadequate for the needs of the department. The Bank Street headquarters did not meet fire safety codes, was not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and had no fire alarm, sprinkler or fire suppression systems.

"Each station suffers from the effect of years of neglect caused by our failure to provide the resources for routine, annual, preventative maintenance," he wrote in the 10-year-old report.

Kydd said none of those issues has been addressed.

In his report, Samul said it was "questionable if the Bank Street Station meets the basic OSHA requirement," and he recommended that city and fire officials form a committee "to implement a plan to replace the Bank Street Station ..."

No committee was ever formed.

Then-City Manager Richard Brown warned that a loss of state revenues had already forced a tax increase, and many municipal buildings, including an overcrowded police station, needed improvements, too.

Board of Education Chairwoman Margaret Curtin, who was on the City Council in 2004, remembers the report and that nothing was done.

"It's always a Band-Aid here and Band-Aid there. Eventually the Band-Aid is going to break," she said.

The city needs to build up its capital fund, she said.

Maintaining public buildings, especially older ones, is not cheap.

"It's very difficult and very expensive to redevelop these old buildings," said Ned Hammond, the city's economic development coordinator.

'The grandeur of the city'

The city put out a "Request for Proposals" offering the Martin Center for sale late last year, but no one responded, he said. Construction costs have gone up, he said, and renovating old buildings means added costs, such as updating building codes and installing new safety measures, such as water suppression systems.

"Now you have to have sprinkler systems. Those are not cheap," he said.

Constance Kristofik, executive director of New London Landmarks, believes it is worth the effort and the cost to preserve buildings like City Hall.

"These buildings are historical place-markers for civic matters," she said. "A lot of buildings that serve a community, give a sense of place to that city."

City Hall is historically a focal point, she said. It's where the community gathers, records are kept and legislation is enacted.

"It represents the grandeur of the city," she said.

New London Landmarks has agreed to help the city apply for grants to renovate City Hall.

The mayor said citizens now have to decide where their priorities are, and how much they want to invest to maintain the city's infrastructure.

"We need to have an honest debate about spending," Finizio said. "We've come to the point where we've hit the end of the road. ... Now we have to look at restaffing our departments and address routine maintenance problems. ... It's cheaper to maintain buildings as you go, than to have to fix the buildings when they fall apart."

k.edgecomb@theday.com

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