LITCHFIELD REFERENDUM: TAXPAYER MILLION$ ON THE LINE
RESIDENTS TO VOTE ON COURTHOUSE TOWN HALL, BANTAM ANNEX GIVEAWAY DECEMBER 19
By Betsy Glassman
LitchfIeld officials are holding a referendum on December 19 to answer two questions: 1) Should the town spend $7.6M renovating the Courthouse on the Green as a Town Hall? 2) Should the town donate the Bantam Annex on 10.5 acres---appraised at $1.1 million in "as is" condition---to Litchfield Housing Trust (LHT) for affordable housing with 24 units planned?
Officials swore at November town meetings that the Courthouse Town Hall (CTH) will increase taxes only a negligible amount as the Litchfield Schools Project is gradually paid off. After the meetings, the Board of Selectmen (BOS) voted 4-1 against the CTH, stating the building is inadequate. Yet they back the giveaway of the million dollar Annex, even though we can ill afford it with town debt at $26M. What's more, LHT needs state funding to build but doesn't have it. The state's debt was $74 billion in 2017 and at best, funding is many years away.
Despite BOS votes against the CTH, the plan soon rose again with a referendum-forcing petition from members of Courthouse owner Litchfield Preservation Trust (LPT). First Selectman Leo Paul stated publicly on 12/4 he will vote no, with three other selectmen reiterating opposition. Mr. Paul added something new: the cost of Courthouse upkeep is $6K to $10K per month with eight months needed for pre-construction planning. These costs are extra, i.e. not included in the $7.6M referendum.
Meanwhile, an idea that's gained public traction is for a private entity or non-profit group to purchase the Courthouse for a community-minded performing arts center. In contrast to a CTH that generates zero business income or tax revenue, a Courthouse for the Arts would be an anchor for the Green, encourage tourism and provide a venue and jobs for performers and others in the arts. Local resident and acclaimed musician Paul Winter has offered to play for an acoustics test, a request so far ignored.
As for the Annex, its architect was Marcel Breuer, world renowned for such mid-Century Modern buildings as the Whitney Museum in New York City, now known as the Met Breuer. Breuer-designed buildings and furniture are highly sought after and valuable. Yet BOS ignores the intrinsic historic and architectural value of the Annex because it's sorely neglected---which is their fault. Apparently it's not decrepit, though, as witnessed by LHT's plan.
Calls for a public walk-through of the Annex have likewise been ignored by BOS, whose mindset is the upkeep is too expensive so get rid of it and "do it fast." Public Works Director Raz Alexe reports yearly expenses at $175K or $14.6K/mo. Some residents question the figure because the Courthouse upkeep is half that, and the Annex is barely maintained. Currently $600K sits in Annex coffers thanks to revenue from Post Office and Bantam court leases, but the former is uncertain and the latter gone with the court's relocation.
In addition to promoting the $1.1M giveaway, BOS heavily favors LHT in the Annex contract, requiring taxpayers to not only lease the gym after closing but also pay all expenses such as maintenance, fuel, electricity and insurance. Residents must also pay for maintenance of the entire building before its transfer, including new boilers and cleaning up an underground oil spill. With taxpayer-funded improvements made, we then turn the building over to LHT.
A Save the Annex group contends that if the town retains the Annex, there's plenty of space for town office expansion that's needed until TH renovations are completed or a new TH is built. After that, revenue could be generated by leasing business space. (A zoning change is required). Ideas for the open space include playing fields, a community garden or park/playground.
Finally, town officials have failed to ask questions re: LHT's finances. The group can't afford to build even eight units on its Torrington Road property that was previously owned by the town and transferred in a sketchy transaction a decade ago. Despite land use and court approvals completed two years ago, LHT has yet to start construction. President Bob Petricone recently explained that state funding is "in process."
I came to these issues a year ago with no preconceived notions, just a need to protect my tax dollars and property values. With unresolved issues swirling, BOS says it's time to hurry up and decide because construction costs only increase over time. That reminds me of a fraud protection seminar I attended, where "hurry up and pay" is exactly what experts warned against. I'm voting "no" and "no."
Note: Early voting is available at Town Hall during regular business hours and Saturday 12/15 from 10 am-1pm
Betsy Glassman is a journalist on public policy issues