Town Building Evaluation and Use Committee Unveils Its Recommendations [IUPDATED]

Members of the Town Building Evaluation and Use Committee—which for the past eight months has been looking for ways to make more efficient and cost-effective use of town-owned facilities—presented its draft report to the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday.

Among the recommendations included in the group’s massive 91-page report (available here in full) are moving the Board of Education offices from the current leased space on Locust Avenue to a town-owned facility—preferably the second floor of Waveny House or the main house at Irwin Park; using former Outback Teen Center building for an alternative high school program; renovating the Police Department building; razing the Richmond Hill garage; using the three-bay garage at Irwin Park as additional space for the Public Works Department; and developing policies for the storage of documents and other items in town buildings, among other recommendations.

“The idea here is to look at where we might find some savings—or, if not, lower costs, moving forward—by optimizing the use of our buildings,” committee co-chair and Board of Finance member Amy Carroll said during the special meeting. “That’s what really drove this whole analysis. In tough times, [the Board of Finance] going to go through every department and say, ‘Please sharpen your pencils, what can we do better?’ It seems to me that from a town perspective, we should be saying, ‘How can we do better with our own buildings?’ ”

With regard to the general cost of the committee’s recommendations, which is still largely yet to be determined, Carroll said: “Yankee frugality is awesome—in that you don’t spend too much—but sometimes it might be penny wise and pound foolish. We could do nothing—we could make no adjustments to the capital plan at all—but that’s not without cost, because we have old buildings and some things are going to happen; they’re going to need to be fixed. So we held those thoughts as we went through our recommendations as a team.”

During the committee’s meeting in late October, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi said the school administration is open to the idea of relocating its offices from leased commercial space on Locust Street to Waveny House, Irwin Park or possibly another town-owned facility, provided that the space can be configured properly for administrative offices.

During Tuesday’s meeting, held at Town Hall, Carroll said that it currently costs the town about $330,000 a year to lease the space on Locust—however, this is an “escalating cost” to the town, which is what prompted the committee to consider moving the Board of Ed to a town-owned facility.

“I know this is something that has been discussed in town for a long time,” she said. “Right now, they rent the facilities—which they just recently renovated, for an operational cost savings—for about $330,000 a year. When, in the town, we have a high number of buildings that are vacant or under-utilized.”

The big question, Carroll said, is how much it would cost the town to renovate the second floor of Waveny House—which is the committee’s preferred location for the Board of Ed compared with the main house at Irwin—in order to make the space suitable for administrative offices. She said although Irwin could also be a suitable location, that house would need more substantial modifications in order to accommodate the Board of Ed offices. The committee has also discussed the option of razing the main house at Irwin and building a new facility for the Board of Ed.

As reported by NewCanaanite.com earlier this week, the committee is recommending that the Board of Selectmen form a task force to take a look at these options and determine the feasibility of moving the Board of Ed to a town owned facility from a cost perspective.

“The second floor of Waveny House is a big space—there is a lot of room,” Carroll said, adding that the second floor offers about 10,000 square feet. “It could be reconfigured in a way that works for them. Alternatively, we have the main house at Irwin … which is completely empty … and the question there is whether would this [idea would] work on either a renovated or build-as-new basis.”

The committee is also recommending that the Board of Selectmen consider allowing the school administration to establish an alternative special education program at the former Outback Teen Center, which officials are now calling the Town Hall Annex. This idea was also discussed in detail during the committee’s meeting in late October. During that meeting, Luizzi revealed that the school administration has for the past year been developing a new alternative special education program designed to bring out-placed students back in-district. The goal in developing the program, he said, is to improve special education in New Canaan and to realize potential operational savings.

Luizzi said that the former teen center would be an ideal location for such a program because it is the right size and centrally located in town. He explained that currently, a fairly high percentage of the town’s special education students in high school are making use of outplacement services—requiring some of them to be bused as far as Greenwich in order to receive those services. Luizzi explained that the school administration feels it can provide better services to those students in-district, through the development of an in-district program, but that it needs the space in order to do so.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Carroll said the school administration estimates that establishing such a program in town could ultimately end up saving the district as much $150,000 a year through the elimination of third-party outplacement costs. However, just as with moving the Board of Education offices to Waveny, there would be a cost involved in order to renovate the Town Hall Annex and make it suitable for such a program. It would be up to the Board of Selectmen to work with the school administration in order to determine what those costs would be.

“What’s really exciting about this is that the Town Hall Annex was built for kids,” Carroll said. “That was the intention of the people who raised the money [to renovate the Outback]. This concept identifies a purpose that is in keeping with [the building’s intended use]… and it would allow us to keep more of our special education students in town and provide a really enhanced educational experience.”

The committee is also recommending that the town consider either renovating or replacing the current police department building, which has in recent years presented some constraints for the department due to its size. The building, Carroll said, “is definitely in need of major renovation… it’s been 34 years [since the last one].”

“At this point it probably makes more sense to do it all at once, as opposed to piecemeal,” she said.

Another of the committee’s major recommendations is “that the vacant Richmond Hill garage be taken down finally—it’s been on the docket for a long time,” Carroll said.

“It’s structurally not sound,” she said, adding that the building has been “vacant for 20 years and there is no identified purpose for it.”

Carroll said the town could offer the Richmond Hill garage up to some other group in town “for some use,” provided that there are “supported funds” for the renovation, “sort of like what we did with the South Avenue Cottage.”

“But short of that we think it is a structure that could come down … and it would enhance the vista of the park,” she added. “Right now, it’s kind of an eyesore.”

Carroll later said the estimated cost of removing the garage is about $55,000.

The committee also recommends that the town and Board of Education review how various facilities are being used for storage purposes. In its analysis, the committee discovered that numerous town buildings have spaces run them that are being used to store old items which the town/school district arguably no longer need.

“One thing we noticed with our vacant buildings is that they tend to be magnets for clutter and stuff that people just can’t let go of,” said committee co-chair Penny Young. “There needs to be a policy to, say, for example, that we don’t need to store old phones from the high school renovation in the basement. Stuff that is beyond its useful life… let’s not store it… let’s get it out of there…”

Young said the committee supports the recent efforts of the town clerk to identify additional areas for the storage of various town records. She said there are “lots of records that are kept in various locations and facilities throughout town.”

“We think we should support the Town Clerk’s effort to find out where that storage should be… and finalize the records retention policies and procedures. .. and then that can govern what we need to do with some of the buildings,” Young said.

Part of this effort to improve storage (although not related to the storage of documents) would be the “cleaning out and reorganizing the three-bay garage at Irwin Park, which would be a great work space for Public Works…  to allow them to do their work more effiencetly,” Carroll said.

In addition, the committee recommends that the Board of Selectmen establish a set of policies pertaining to the five rental properties that the town owns.

“We have five rental properties in town buildings … and they are all handled differently,” Young said. “Some are vacant, some are leased by certain entities. What we’d like to see is a more consistent policy. Maybe you’ll want an outside group for that [as well].”

“I know this seems like a lot to perform,” Carroll said with regard to the 91-page report. “But we’ve spent eight months looking at this—and this is just our collective thoughts on how we might be able to help the town moving forward.”

She added that although the draft report has been submitted, the committee by no means considers its work done. She encouraged residents to offer suggestions of their own for how to improve the use of town-owned facilities.

First Selectman Moynihan thanked Carroll and Young for the committee’s work.

“It has been very helpful to collect all this information,” he said. “We just got this [report] yesterday [Monday]—these 91 pages will take time to digest.”

Selectman Nick Williams also thanked the committee for its “exhaustive” and “impressive” work.

“I’m certainly open to the idea of further analysis,” Williams said, adding that all of the committee’s recommendations so far “make sense.”

“The one thing I think we need to embed in here is the cost of doing these things… for example, moving the Board of Education, what does that entail and what does it cost?” Williams added.

[Note: This article has been clarified to show that the five rental properties whose leases the committee recommends studying further do not include those attached to the Playhouse building downtown.]

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