Awaiting a verdict: Mayor mulls options for use of vacant courthouse

Published on Friday, 13 September 2019 19:14
Written by SUSAN CORICA

@coricaBP

BRISTOL – Now that the courthouse over the police station is empty, Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu has some thoughts about how that available space could affect the future of City Hall.

The Bristol Geographical Area (G.A.) 17 Courthouse at 131 N. Main St. officially closed at the end of the business day Aug. 30, with judicial functions moved to G.A. 15 in New Britain.

The space was cleared out as of Sept. 4, Zoppo-Sassu said. “Our staff will be going over there on an available basis to clean.”

“They did leave us some items,” she told the City Council. “We are the proud recipients of some lobby benches, some L-shaped desks, several file shelf units, and some metal shelving. The Emergency Management director has already asked for some of that to be used within his storage room.”

“The state has contracted with a vendor for the demolition and removal of the judges’ stands, the jury boxes and additional benches that are going to be removed sometime in October,” she added.

The space needs some updating but it’s in decent shape. There is a question of whether the city can use the existing conduits for telecommunications and computer wiring to extend phone service and the server there, she said.

“We’re working with the state Department of Administrative Services on it,” Zoppo-Sassu said.

Zoppo-Sassu said having that approximately 20,000 square foot space available, especially since the building connects by skywalk with City Hall, opens up some options.

“We have issues in City Hall,” she said. “It has had years of deferred maintenance. Our mechanical infrastructure is crumbling, we’ve had lead issues, we’re doing abatement projects, we have asbestos in the basement, we have pipes breaking. We need to address this.”

The City Council has investigated ideas for relocating City Hall or building a whole new one, because renovating it had seemed impractical before.

“You really can’t renovate in place when you’re shutting off water and heating and cooling systems. So this gives us the opportunity to relocate things over there while work is being done,” Zoppo-Sassu said.

The court space could even be a permanent addition to City Hall, allowing all the economic development and planning departments to be placed closer together for convenience, she said.

The extra space could also free up room for the town and city clerk’s office vault to expand. The climate controlled, fireproof vault is the city’s depository for permanent records, going back many years, and it’s running out of space, she noted.

“Our other issue is that we often have to rent space for training facilities for the cops,” she continued. “They have a small training room, so we’re constantly sending guys to East Hartford, Manchester, Farmington, for a week and we have to pay for their mileage, their gas, if there’s an overtime issue.”

Creating a training facility upstairs could allow them to stay in-house, she said. “We could showcase that space, bring in other departments to train here, and actually make money off it.”

Fire Department headquarters, at 181 N. Main St., could also use some extra space, she said. “So there’s all kinds of opportunities.”

Expanding into the court space “does not include increasing the scope of government,” she added. “It’s not like we’re adding departments, or functions, or employees at this point. It would just be a better use of space.”

The state had leased the space for the court at 131 N. Main St. since 1980.

Last April, Chief Court Administrator Patrick L. Carroll III announced the courthouse would close at the end of August. The move was estimated to save the state’s Judicial Branch about $146,000 annually, which was paid to the city for leasing space in the building.

The courthouse was home to 30.5 full-time equivalent employees, and the move was not intended to cost any state workers their jobs.

“We are very grateful to Mayor Zoppo-Sassu for understanding why this move is necessary and beneficial to all parties,” Carroll said at the time. “Moreover, given the daily challenges that the Judicial Branch, prosecutors and public defenders continue to face because of reduced resources, this move allows us to position those resources more effectively, and thus provide the best services possible to the people we serve.”

“The City of Bristol has valued its long-term relationship with GA 17, but we also recognize the need to seek regional solutions to economic challenges,” Zoppo-Sassu said when the closing was announced. “This is a part of what I see as an evolution of downtown and what type of services we want here. While some may see this as a negative, I prefer to view it as yet another opportunity for the city to review options for the space that might help us cut our costs or improve efficiencies.”

The Bristol court handled cases from the city, Plainville, Plymouth, Southington and Burlington. In fiscal year 2018, it took on 4,524 new cases.

The court in New Britain, at 20 Franklin Square, already handled cases from New Britain, Berlin, Rocky Hill, Newington and Wethersfield. Last fiscal year, it took on 27,227 new cases.

Judicial officials said the move will result in New Britain taking on about 17% more cases, but there are enough courtrooms to handle the increased case load, as well as space for the additional employees.

Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or scorica@bristolpress.com.



Posted in The Bristol Press, Bristol on Friday, 13 September 2019 19:14. Updated: Friday, 13 September 2019 19:16.