LITCHFIELD — A group of residents have not given up on the idea that the Bantam School, formerly used by the state as a courthouse, is the best option for a new town hall in Litchfield.
The residents, who say they are not a political action group and have no official name, meet informally at the Bantam Borough Hall.
“It’s about getting the community together to talk and it has nothing to do with town government,” said resident Anne Haas, who attends the gatherings because she says she is frustrated with the Board of Selectmen. “You’re free to express yourself. There’s no agenda, and the discussion goes wherever it goes.”
“We’re a grassroots group who gather together to discuss our concerns,” she said.
The reason the group formed, however, has everything to do with town government, because those who attend want their leaders to reconsider renovating the old Bantam School and making it the town’s central location for its municipal offices. The old school building sits on 10.5 acres off Route 202 in the borough. While a main portion of the school was vacated when courthouse operations stopped in 2017, the building also houses Litchfield’s planning and zoning offices, park and recreation department and the fire marshal’s offices. The U.S. Post Office also leases a space in the building and a gym is used for park and rec programs.
In the last 10-12 years, committees established and architects hired to study the best option for a new town hall said the Bantam School was not a viable option because of the costs associated with such a project, and because of the idea that the town hall should be in Litchfield, not the Bantam borough.
Haas says her neighbors want to have an open discussion with the Board of Selectmen, but feel they are being ignored.
“We’re just so frustrated at the inability we have to talk about anything at the selectmen’s meetings,” she said. “We have people who are fired up about things they just think are wrong, and they want to do something about it.
Haas handed in a petition with 170 signatures at the April 9 Board of Selectmen’s meeting, asking for a walk-through of the Bantam School.
First Selectman Leo Paul acknowledged Monday that Haas had delivered her petition, and that the board is holding a special meeting Tuesday to allow the group to visit the Bantam building Saturday.
“We are opening the Bantam Annex for three hours for a tour on April 27,” he said. “That way they can come into the building and see it. I will have to pay three public works employees five hours of overtime to be there, but we’ll do it, so they can go inside.”
Paul plans on Tuesday to call a town meeting for 7 p.m. April 30 at the Litchfield Firehouse to discuss the Bantam building.
“This is probably the fifth time we’ve had a hearing or a meeting on this, so we’re probably going to hear the same things for the fifth time on April 30,” he said. “We’re giving them what they’ve asked for, again.”
“There was a group (that formed) to save the annex last year, during the (December 2018) referendum. and after the proposal to sell it failed, we thought (the town) would talk about it,” Haas said. “But they haven’t. This is about common sense for the future of Litchfield.”
The day of the December 2018 vote, a flyer was distributed to households urging them to vote no and support a Bantam town hall location. Resident John Langer took responsibility for the flyer after a complaint was filed by residents Paul Mordecai Rosenberg and John Torrant with the state Elections Enforcement Commission because the flyer had no identifying marks or names. The SEEC dismissed the complaint after Torrant contacted them and said he paid for and distributed the flyer himself.
The idea of a new town hall has been on and off the board table for more than 10 years, under the purview of a town hall review commission.
In October 2018, the commission held public information meetings on options for a new town hall, including building a new one or renovating the existing one. The use of the existing building, which is too small to house all of Litchfield’s municipal offices, would require an addition and renovation at a cost of between $3 and $5 million. Building a new town hall could cost more.
Litchfield also voted in December 2018 on a proposal to accept the old Litchfield County Courthouse on West Street — which closed in 2017 when a new courthouse opened in Torrington — from the Greater Litchfield Preservation Trust, and convert the antique building into a new town hall; to renovate the old town hall, or build a new one.
The vote also asked residents to allow the town to sell the Bantam School building to the Litchfield Housing Trust, which wants to use the property for affordable housing. Both proposals failed, leaving the Board of Selectmen, which oversees the town hall discussions, without a town hall proposal. Since then the town hall review commission has not held any meetings.
Resident Gary Gilman agrees with Haas, and says that because the board “wants to get rid of” the Bantam School building, his and others’ ideas are being disregarded.
“It seems very clear by (First Selectman Leo Paul’s) actions that his goal is a new town hall,” he said. “The worse he makes the Bantam School and the existing town hall look, the more he can get people to support a new one.”
Gilman and Haas say using the Bantam School building makes sense for everyone. The post office could stay where it is, the gym would continue to be used for its many recreation programs, and the building and its property could become “a town hall campus” in Bantam.
“That would be a wonderful thing,” Gilman said. “It’s the most economically logical thing to do, to put (all the municipal) offices there. I see no reason for those offices to be centrally located. The Bantam School has 10.5 level acres. The land could be used for a dog park, for activity fields ... it could be a great asset to the town. Even if we move all the town offices from Litchfield down to Bantam, there would still be room there. We could rent some of the space.”
Gilman also said the selectmen aren’t taking care of the building as they should.
“I think it’s very important that the public knows what the selectmen’s costs are to use it and to maintain (Bantam School),” he said.
Gilman was referring to the building’s maintenance account, or “the annex fund,” which has been funded using rent received from the state court operations and the post office, for $200,000 annually. “The rent has been set aside in this fund to support the annex, to maintain it, and the post office rent also goes into that account,” Gilman said. “The money’s for the annex and it’s dwindling because the town isn’t getting the court rent anymore. The money should go back into the building.
“The Bantam building doesn’t even have its own line item in the budget,” Gilman said. “The town needs to pay for the cost of maintaining that building. Right now everything comes out of the annex fund ... cleaning, garbage, lights, heat .. it has two furnaces, and one of them is dead, and the other one’s not much better. They want to dip into the fund to pay for a new furnace, but eventually the fund will be gone.
“We need to figure out where park and rec is going to go if the building is sold, too,” Gilman said. “Nobody’s talked about housing park and rec if the Bantam building disappears.”
Haas said her concerns started with what she called “a scare meeting” in 2018, when the selectmen discussed the future of the old school. “We decided to fight this,” she said. “Their reasons, the cost to maintain it, is a big thing. They say we’re only using 19 percent of the building, but my math’s different. It’s more like 45 percent. It’s being used.”
She said the costs of renovating the old school are not up to date.
According to Haas, saving the school and using it for municipal needs is more cost-effective. “If the school is renovated, it would cost about $3.1 million,” she said. “It would cost $2.9 million to renovate the old town hall, and with an addition, it would come to about $5 million. So people started saying ‘Why not just renovate the school building? There are people who have expressed an interest in the land, too, like a dog park group that wants an acre. That would be perfect.”
“If we lose this school because (selectmen) just want to get rid of it, we’re losing a gem,” she said. “We’d lose a quality of life in Bantam.”