New London shouldn't abandon its downtown buildings

New London City Hall on State Street, as it appeared Monday, March 11, 2019. (David Collins/The Day)
New London City Hall on State Street, as it appeared Monday, March 11, 2019. (David Collins/The Day)

I am skeptical of New London Mayor Michael Passero's unfolding plans to consolidate city offices in rented space somewhere, as if renting is going to be magically cheaper than owning.

This seems especially problematic given the collection of downtown buildings that house city offices — including historic City Hall — that the city owns outright, without mortgages.

After all, the city can't just walk away and abandon buildings like so many other downtown landlords. It's not like there is a robust market for selling them.

The mayor has described the planning as a way, in part, to create a better work environment for city employees. "We are looking for first-class office space to provide employees with a quality working environment, a collegial atmosphere," the mayor told a reporter last year, as the move-to-rented-space planning picked up speed.

I'd like to hear from some beleaguered city taxpayers, hit so often with substantial tax increases, when they learn that the high taxes they pay are not providing nice enough office space for city employees, that there isn't a collegial environment. Wow.

Surely there are statistics the mayor should find that would show that city employees are paid considerably better, with pensions and health care, than most city residents.

I would suggest this rent-instead-of-own thinking is a bit like the fantasy household math we all try to deploy when we want to buy a new car.

Instead of focusing on the payments for a new car, which are unrelenting and not negotiable, we cite all the big repair bills from the last year on the old car. With this delusion, you focus on a few big repairs, the clutch, the brakes, and suggest that these crippling expenses are going to continue unabated, and, after all, a new clutch is a lot more than a monthly car payment.

Let's be honest, who doesn't want a new car and who can't conjure up some scary numbers about unknown future car repairs to make the whole spending spree seem like sound money management.

Instead of leather seats and the Bose sound system, the mayor is going for "first-class" office space.

In the debut of this planning for the City Council, the mayor listed all the new clutches and brake pads the city has installed in recent years, but skipped the payments that will be required for a new car. The council wasn't even provided broad estimates of how much it will cost to rent new office space, just an itemized accounting of how much the city spends maintaining its buildings.

City taxpayers ought to call out this disingenuous math soon, before the planning progresses much further.

Maybe I'm wrong, and it will turn out to be much cheaper to rent first-class office space that provides a collegial atmosphere for employees than it is to maintain the buildings you own, with their second-class offices. But I would have to see the numbers to believe it.

The mayor hasn't disclosed what he has in mind for City Hall, but surely the consolidation planning couldn't include any notion of moving the principal seat of city government outside that iconic building. And if the heart of city government is in City Hall, shouldn't everyone else be within walking distance, as they are in two other buildings the city owns nearby?

Indeed, the city shouldn't move even a single city employee out of the challenged and emptying downtown. Aren't there already enough empty storefronts and offices and businesses left behind by downtown flight?

One honest assessment I've heard come from this consolidation planning is that the city has ignored its building maintenance responsibilities for too long. This is especially true with City Hall, which has become an embarrassment because of the way it has been allowed to deteriorate so badly.

City Hall should be properly restored, a downtown anchor to make residents proud.

The excuse that the work is too expensive is worn out. Compromise on the scope of the project. Get more estimates. Find more historic renovation grants. Beg for state help. Borrow what more is needed.

The city shouldn't join the abandon downtown bandwagon.

It's not time to buy a new car.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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