After election, fate of New Milford’s Pettibone center in new hands
NEW MILFORD — Last week’s election not only brought a change in party control of town offices, but also threw into doubt several projects championed by ousted Mayor David Gronbach.
Gronbach, a Democrat, had prioritized expanding a bike trail, revitalizing the riverfront near Young’s Field and modernizing the town library, but his most controversial project was the conversion of the former John Pettibone School into a community center.
Town Council Republicans, including Mayor-elect Pete Bass, had voted against appropriations for some of these projects, arguing Gronbach failed to get community input on his plans or to provide detailed cost estimates.
They were particularly critical of the Pettibone project.
Bass said all of the projects are “honorable” in principle, and he has no intention of killing them outright. But he said he will create committees to seek public input and conduct financial reviews of all major projects before proceeding.
“These projects are community projects and there are a lot of people who love them and a lot of people who just want to know ... the true cost,” Bass said. “My goal is to give the public a ton of information and full access to the office of the mayor.
“We’ll be looking at moving things along,” he said, “but I can’t guarantee they’ll be done in two years.”
Gronbach said he is not worried that Bass will abandon his riverfront or parks projects because the community backs them. But he charged during the campaign that town Republicans had wanted to sell the former Pettibone school, rather than reuse it.
“I’m concerned about Pettibone,” Gronbach said. “I don’t know what his plans are.”
Town GOP Chairman Mike Barnes said the charge that Republicans want to sell the Pettibone — originally made in 2015 during Gronbach’s first campaign — is “a lie told to get votes.” The party’s recent objections were about the process, he said.
“The complaints by individuals that have been previously aired were all very specific about Mayor Gronbach violating process and not allowing any public input at all on some very expensive undertakings like the Pettibone building,” Barnes wrote in an email.
The town already has spent $380,000 on renovations at Pettibone, and estimates of additional costs, such as making it fully energy-efficient, run into the millions.
“That’s an awful lot of money to spend without taxpayer input,” Barnes wrote.
Town Democratic Chairman Peter Mullen, who served on a Republican-dominated Town Council before Gronbach’s election, said GOP members always voted as a bloc, and he does not expect that to change.
“Of course it’s going to be a rubber-stamp council,” he said. “There was never any compromise.”
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