Debate over police HQ in Howden Hall unresolved
BRISTOL — Concerned members of the Bristol Historical Society and their supporters appealed to the Bristol selectboard at the Monday meeting to change its decision to move the police department’s offices into the basement and west wing of Howden Hall.
The decision to move the police, now in temporary housing, will result in the loss of a public meeting space in Howden Hall and the historical society will not be able to expand its museum in the historic West Street building, historical society vice president Gerald Heffernan told the board.
Police vacated their space in Holley Hall late last year when renovations began and have been working out of South Street offices owned by the Hendersons since then. The renovations to Holley Hall will result in reduced space and thus left police looking for new digs. This summer they decided on Howden Hall as the future home because the reduced police budget limits the department’s ability to pay rent in a commercial space.
Heffernan told the board he was appalled when he heard about the decision to move the police into a space that had been donated to the town under the stipulation that it would serve as community center for the town of Bristol. The Thomas family donated Howden Hall to the town in 1948, specifically outlining that the space should be used for school purposes, according to a Heffernan letter to the board in which he cites the deed. Years later, when the space was no longer needed for classes, Bristol resident Howard Gladding convinced the remaining members of the Thomas family to alter the deeds to allow for the space to be used as a community center, and meeting hub for various organizations, including the historical society.
Although he was well aware that the selectboard has the final say about how town-owned buildings are used, Heffernan felt that the decision to house the police in Howden Hall goes against the spirit of the Thomas family’s intention for their donation.
On behalf of the historical society, Heffernan presented a petition with the signatures of 190 concerned townspeople to the selectboard. He claimed that many people were not aware that the police department would not be returning to Holley Hall once the renovations were complete.
“I alone collected 80 names,” said Heffernan, “and of those 80 names, every last one was, flabbergasted to think that there would be no meeting space for the community. Without Howden Hall, we have no place to have our meetings, and no place to put our stuff that was in the museum.”
The selectboard members said it had always been made very clear that the police would not be returning to Holley Hall, and that the intent was always to put them back in rented space. They explained that the decision to move the police offices to Howden Hall was the result of the cuts made to the police budget earlier this summer and its occupancy is slated to last five to eight years.
“We had to do something to the budget to squeeze it,” said Town Administrator Bill Bryant, “and rent is one of the places that got squeezed.”
Bryant explained that the police department had been paying $2,000 a year to the town to rent space in Holley Hall, a price significantly lower than what typical commercial space. For this reason, there was little opportunity for police to rent space in a building not currently owned by the town.
“We don’t have enough money to pay for our own buildings, let alone to go out and rent more space,” said Selectman Alan Huizenga.
Heffernan and his supporters argued that there had to be a way to make room for the police in Holley Hall.
Bryant, though, explained that by nature, the renovations to Holley Hall did not allow enough space for the police department to return. In expanding the size of the town vault and by providing a decent lobby space, there is no longer enough room, he said.
At Monday’s meeting, attended by at least 14 citizens, townspeople suggested several alternate locations to the selectboard, including the building currently holding the temporary town offices, and the old Bristol Animal Hospital, which the Legion is considering purchasing.
Bryant and selectmen made it clear that they would welcome any conversations about possible spaces that could house the police within the department’s new budget.
Although the issue will not be added to the November ballot, the selectboard will continue to investigate other options for housing the police department in hopes that Howden Hall can remain, as originally intended, a place for community meetings. As Bryant outlined, the historical society’s concerns could lead to a public meeting and an advisory vote on whether police should be stationed in Howden Hall.
“We’re certainly willing to talk to anyone else who could help us through this impasse,” Bryant said. “Howden Hall was a choice of last resort. It wasn’t the place that anybody wanted to see them end up.”
Tamara Hilmes is at firstname.lastname@example.org.