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Bridgewater

Building problems scatter town services

Bridgewater’s already scattered town services are going to become even more far-flung, once officials are done reassigning municipal employees displaced by recent building problems to wherever there is available space.

For years, the town has operated out of three buildings clustered around its Central Square. Residents travel to Town Hall for tax payments and voter registration, the Academy Building for building and health permits, and to the Memorial Building for Town Council meetings.

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Two of those buildings, however, will soon be shuttered for health and safety reasons.

Their closure comes as no surprise: Authorities in 2008 had warned that all three buildings were badly in need of repair, and a recently completed study showed the situation had worsened.

Deteriorating conditions caught up with the town early this month when a crumbling ceiling forced the closure of the Memorial Building. Town Council meetings shifted down the street to the local cable television studio.

Last week, the decision was made to close the Academy Building as well, a move that will more seriously affect local services. The 144-year-old structure houses the health department, building and inspectional services, planning and conservation offices, the water and sewer department, accounting office, and the Emergency Operations Center.  

Police Chief Christopher Delmonte, who has been in charge while the acting town manager was on vacation, made the call to close the building following an inspection by the state Department of Public Health, called to town by local health officials to do air-quality testing.

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“We knew there were ongoing issues,” said Health Agent Eric Badger. “There were holes everywhere in the roof, and earlier this year we had three bats in the women’s bathroom. We had complaints coming in from the employees’ unions threatening grievances.”

While air-quality results are not yet in, inspectors found obvious problems, from bird waste in the ventilation system and evidence of squirrels and other rodents, to water damage, mold, and crumbling asbestos.

State health officials provided a list of recommendations, including waste cleanup, asbestos abatement, removal of soaked carpeting, moldy wall boards, and wet insulation, evaluation and cleaning of the ventilation system, and sealing areas where pests were getting in.

Delmonte decided to move all employees out permanently over the next two weeks rather than spend town dollars on the deteriorated building. “Just the cleanup was going to cost more than $15,000,” he said.

The Academy Building had been recently scrutinized as part of a study on how best to deliver services. Results, released in August, concluded the top option is to overhaul the Academy Building to house all town offices, and put the Town Hall and Memorial Building to other uses.

In its report, HKT Architects urged the town to move quickly because the Academy Building was “in danger of becoming unfit for occupancy of any kind unless some action is taken.”

Officials have done little since study results were presented, a fact that frustrates Marilee Hunt, a Municipal Building Committee member and Community Preservation Committee chairwoman. 

“I’m kind of surprised at how slowly the Town Council is reacting, since the study said the building was in critical shape,” Hunt said. “I’m all for optimism and positivity, but there’s also reality. There’s a time to put your shoulder to the wheel, and I think we’re at or past that point.”

The estimated cost to overhaul the Academy Building is nearly $10 million. Hunt believes the Community Preservation Fund could cover up to $5.5 million, since the building has historic value. That value may also qualify it for state and national grants, but the town will probably have to raise taxes to cover some of the cost.

Meanwhile, Delmonte has been working to reassign departments, which he said “is a bit of a puzzle.” Some services will move to the second floor of Town Hall, which is being cleaned out and equipped with a chair lift. Others will set up in the recreation building outside downtown. The Emergency Operations Center will likely relocate to the state corrections complex, but may initially operate from a school building.

A plan to use the library’s basement didn’t pan out, leaving Delmonte last week with a few employees still to place.

The Town Council on Tuesday will consider recommended short- and long-term solutions from the acting town manager, Richard Kerbel, who is expected back from vacation.

“The question is, does it make sense to remediate a building we’re going to renovate?” council president Kristy Colon said.

But finding a solution could be tricky. Not everyone agrees the Academy Building should undergo the pricey overhaul suggested in HKT’s study.

“I know a lot of people who want to preserve the Academy Building, saying it’s the face of the town, but there are also those who want to level it,” she said.

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com.

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