Norwich State Hospital Complex Crumbles Despite State's Millions


Hartford Courant

PRESTON — Fourteen years after the state closed Norwich State Hospital — and after spending as much as $10 million on its maintenance — the institution has fallen to such a state of ruin that parts of the architecturally stunning campus look as if it had experienced a natural disaster.

The record of state expenditures suggests the damage was self-inflicted in some cases.

When it closed the 482-acre campus and its 70 or so buildings in 1996, the state turned off the heat and left the water on. Then, until 2005, the state paid at least half a million dollars to pipe hundreds of millions of gallons of water to the hospital — water that cascaded through unoccupied buildings from frozen and burst pipes. The water peeled paint from walls and the tile from floors.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars more were spent to pump and supposedly treat millions of gallons of phantom sewage, waste that could not have been generated by an unoccupied hospital.

The state didn't decommission or maintain millions of dollars of industrial heating and cooling equipment. A local political figure says the equipment was left "to rot" and has value now only as scrap.

Gabled, slate roofs on century-old buildings have fallen in. Architecturally significant brick walls are collapsing. Heating oil, some from tanks that were supposed to have been drained, has spilled into the Thames River or spread deep into sandy subsoil. The state paid $1.2 million in 2002 to clean up the most recent spill.

Thieves have systematically looted almost anything of value that can be carried away, despite the expenditure of at least $1.5 million by the state on private security. Some of the security guards have been accused of tearing copper out of hospital buildings and selling it as salvage.

The scope of the deterioration may have killed whatever hope the state had of converting a once-grand hospital campus to a tax- and job-generating development.

Cutting-Edge Treatment

When built a century ago, the hospital was a distinctive collection of Gothic Revival structures, a center for cutting-edge thought on the treatment of mental disorder. It sits on a rise above the Thames River in southeastern Connecticut, directly east of the glass tower of the Mohegan Sun casino.

The hospital's striking design, its contribution to the history of medicine, and the leafy tranquility of its campus combined in the late 1980s to earn the institution inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Most of the campus and its principle buildings lie in Preston, with a small portion in Norwich.

The state had begun neglecting the hospital in the late 1970s, according to former superintendant Garrell S. Mullaney, and decided to close it in 1996 when the movement of patients from institutional to community care reduced its residential population. Custodianship of the closed hospital moved from the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to the Department of Public Works.

As recently as 2004, after Norwich and a sister institution in western Connecticut had been closed and their operations consolidated at Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown, the Norwich hospital was still worth millions. Despite deterioration, private appraisals paid for by the state in 2004 valued the Norwich property at $8.3 million and $12.7 million.

But after entertaining a succession of failed efforts to develop the property — including a plan to turn it into a movie studio/amusement/retail complex called Utopia — the state last year sold the town of Preston most of the campus for $1. Preston officials said they have found the deterioration to be so thorough that they have no choice but to knock their portion of the hospital down and haul it to the dump.

Preston hopes to save one structure, the former administration building, and convert it to town offices. But the town wants the building's former eye-catching centerpiece: A grand, tiled fireplace inset with a big, brass Connecticut state medallion. First Selectman Robert Congdon said he has been trying for two years to get the Public Works Department, which may have authorized removal of the fireplace, to tell him where it is.

A senior state public works manager acknowledges that the hospital is a shambles but said its deterioration is the unfortunate consequence of the state's failed efforts to sell the property and the state's dire fiscal condition.

"I don't think anybody envisioned being in this position with this property in this condition," said Deputy Commissioner Jonathan Holmes. "The state was trying very hard to market this property. I don't think anybody saw it taking this long. Eventually the state said, 'Let's minimize our involvement.' Looking back now, there are things we should have done differently."

A decade of involvement in the various development proposals has left Congdon with a distinctly different impression. He called the state's stewardship of the hospital a study in bureaucratic waste.

"This was out of sight and out of mind, down in southeastern Connecticut, and they didn't put any resources in it," Congdon said. "They just let it rot. They just abandoned the property and totally neglected it.

"All they had to do was put one person there to be in control and they could have saved themselves millions of dollars," he said. "With the money that they wasted on utilities that were never used and the money they wasted on security, the property could have been either maintained or torn down. It could have been a productive resource rather than a brown field. And this is just a microcosm of the state of Connecticut. With this kind of waste, do you wonder why we're $4 billion in the red?"

Costly Utility Bills

Buying hundreds of millions of gallons of water for an unoccupied hospital made the state one of the best customers of Norwich Public Utilities, the regional utility serve operated by the nearby city of Norwich. But, during roughly the same period, the state was paying the utility an additional $200,000 for sewage treatment.

For years, a powerful pump on the hospital grounds pushed several thousand gallons of sewage from a holding tank, up a hill through a 4,300-foot-long pipe, to where it was supposed to connect to a line leading to the Norwich treatment plant. For years, nobody noticed — or at least acknowledged — that the check valve at the top end of the hospital's 10-inch pipe was defective.

The defective valve allowed sewage that had reached the top of the hill to flow back down to the tank. With the tank full again, the pump pushed the waste back up. Congdon said the process repeated itself about every 10 minutes. Hour after hour. Week after week. Year after year.

Every time the sewage went up the pipe, a meter registered the volume. The state paid sewage treatment costs based on meter readings, Congdon said.

It is estimated to have cost more than $30,000 in electricity just to operate the pump.

Officials in Preston, including Congdon and members of the volunteer agency the town created to market the hospital, discovered the sewage problem while researching utility and other costs before their $1 purchase. Records kept by Norwich Public Utilities suggest the valve problem may have existed for at least eight years.

Precise calculation of sewage and other state expenditures on the hospital is difficult because state expense records are not available. The Department of Public Works required about a month to respond to a request for expenditure records from 1995 to the present. Ultimately, it provided detailed records beginning with the fiscal year 2006.

Norwich Public Utilities could not produce billing records for the entire period either. But the utility records show the state paid about $380,000 for about 170 million gallons of water from 1999, three years after the hospital closed, to August 2005, when the state finally turned off the flow. The state paid about $202,000 to treat sewage from 2003 to 2010, the utility records show.

Research by Preston of utility costs revealed that there actually was sewage reaching the hospital's holding tank. But it also revealed, not surprisingly, that it wasn't generated by the vacant hospital.

In 1989, the state allowed southeastern Connecticut's quasi-public trash-to-energy authority, also located in Preston, to connect itself by a pipeline to the hospital's sewage collection and disposal system. Under the connection agreement, the trash authority was to pay a prorated share of the treatment bill.

Public officials familiar with hospital billing said there is no record that the trash authority, known by the acronym SCRRRA, ever reimbursed the state for sewage treatment, despite a warning by a state consultant who addressed the issue in a report on the hospital closing in the late 1990s.

"During preparation of this report, no records were located of operation fees billed by the state or paid by SCRRRA," the consultant reported.

Congdon said the repair of the defective valve reduced the hospital's annual sewage costs from about $80,000 to about $4,000. He said $4,000 includes electricity to run the pump and treat waste generated by the trash authority.

"So there was $76,000 a year of waste for who knows how many years," he said.

During an interview last week, Holmes, the deputy public works commissioner, said he was not familiar with sewage expenses. But he said his department was aware for years of high water costs but was hampered in making repairs by the condition of century-old plumbing. He said the department decided to keep the water on in an effort to create hydrant pressure for the Preston volunteer fire companies responsible for fire protection at the closed hospital.

He said water became a more pressing concern in 2003, when a public works accountant wrote a memo reporting high water bills for the three prior years. "Since this is a surplus property, could there be a water leak?" the memo asked. "There are no tenants."

The memo generated department correspondence that caused the state, two years later, to turn the water off. Holmes said the state resolved the fire protection problem by providing volunteer firemen with enough hose to reach from working hydrants to hospital buildings.

Congdon claims that Preston shamed the state into turning off the water by demonstrating to television crews that widespread leaks had killed any water pressure to hydrants on the hospital campus.

Widespread Looting

Looting appears to be a significant cause of hospital damage. Anything copper, with its high salvage value, has attracted thieves who move undetected between buildings through a network of underground tunnels once used for patient transport. A Preston development officer said the state failed to secure the tunnel system, now collapsing in places, when it closed the hospital.

The theft of copper gutters, downspouts and flashing has allowed winter water runoff to freeze and expand in the mortar binding together old brick walls, leaving many in danger of collapse. Copper thieves have ravaged the electrical switching system associated with the hospital power plant, a complex of massive oil burners and steam turbines once capable of producing 2 megawatts of electric power. The energy consumption of all of Preston is 4 megawatts.

The theft suggests looters have largely eluded the state's private security contractors, which cost from about $230,000 to $600,000 a year, according to sometimes contradictory state expenditure records and estimates by others.

Congdon estimates the state's annual security costs at about $600,000, based on the hourly rate the state paid the two or three guards generally employed on each shift. The Norwich Bulletin reported that, in 2009, the state paid $545,000 to a security contractor whose employees responded to 24 instances of trespassing that year.

Itemized expense invoices produced by the Department of Public Works show that that the state paid about $590,000 for security in the 2009 fiscal year. But a state expenditure report that was not itemized shows security costs varying from $233,000 to $537,000 for the fiscal years 2004 to 2009. The Public Works Department said security cost records were not available for prior years.

In the rare places on the hospital grounds yet to experience the full energy of looters and vandals, X-ray machines stand in X-ray suites. Scientific equipment labeled "contaminated" sits in the pathology laboratory.

Government correspondence indicates the state sold surplus hospital equipment at auction when the institution was closed. But the agency that arranged the auction said the records have probably been destroyed.

One piece of equipment that was not auctioned is an industrial, chilled-water air conditioning system that state records show consists of two, 600-ton units. Congdon said the state paid $11 million for the system two years before the hospital closed. Others familiar with the equipment said its five-year manufacturer's warranty remained in force when the hospital closed.

A state consultant referred pointedly to the value of the air conditioning system in a late 1990s report on closing the hospital. "Determine the need for the chiller plant and either reuse it elsewhere or maintain it until it is reactivated at Norwich," the consultant said.

Three Preston officials involved in the hospital purchase said the system may now be worthless because the state failed to properly decommission or maintain it. Congdon said it may have value as an "anchor."

Neighbors of the hospital find its condition saddening, if not stunning. It is turning into an argument against big government.

"When government does too many things, what it does, it doesn't do well," said Fergus Cullen, executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy. "So when government is maintaining properties that it isn't really capable of maintaining, things like this tragic waste end up happening. Aside from the tax dollars, it is the resource that has been squandered – this large property on prime real estate that was let decay."

This article was written by EDMUND H. MAHONY and published by Hartford Courant on Saturday, June 26th 2010 and NOT owned by nor affiliated with, but are recorded here solely for educational use.