Out of room: Probate Court pushed out of Town Hall

Judge of Probate T.R. Rowe.
Judge of Probate T.R. Rowe.

It’s never easy transitioning into a new home.

That’s what Judge of Probate T.R. Rowe and his staff will have to overcome this summer when they leave the confines of Trumbull Town Hall and move four miles up the road to the Trumbull Senior Center.

First Selectman Tim Herbst confirmed the location change Monday, acknowledging the decision was made after several building assessments, conducted by the Trumbull Police Department and Public Works Director John Marsilio, deemed that Town Hall wasn’t “secure” enough to host the probate district that serves Easton, Monroe and Trumbull.

“Basically what their reports and assessments concluded was that Town Hall doesn’t have enough space to fit the probate district anymore,” Herbst told The Times. “The Probate Court has grown substantially over the last 50 years and the building hasn’t adjusted to that growth. …

“We don’t have a choice,” the first selectman added.

For his part, Judge Rowe said he understands the town needs the space, though he’d prefer the court to stay in the location it has been in since 1959.

“The current location works well for us because we’re near the town clerk’s office and trips to file paperwork can be done in one trip for our constituents,” Rowe told The Times Tuesday. “With that said, the fact remains: We take up a fair amount of space in Town Hall. …

“I don’t think we necessarily need to do something — or continue to do something — just because we’ve done it in the past,” he added. “Circumstances do change and you’ve got roll with the punches, and that’s what we’ll do when the time comes.”

Rowe said the location of the court plays a role in how it functions; however, he believes as long as the state standards are met in the new location, the court will be able to adjust and serve the three communities.

Those requirements include space for the judge, the court’s four employees, a courtroom, and a judicial conference room. The current courtroom location is the Town Council Chambers in Trumbull’s Town Hall.

“We will work very hard to make it work for the three towns we provide services in,” he said.

“Ideally, I’d like to be closer to the center of town — where we are now — but we can’t wait for the perfect solution to arise or we’ll be waiting forever,” he said. “The town and the first selectman has been open to our input and our needs, and we really appreciate that.”

There’s no place like home

Herbst said the move into the senior center, located at 23 Priscilla Place, is “pretty much finalized.”

However, Trumbull seniors will get to have a say before anything is written in stone. The town’s Senior Citizen Commission is scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. Monday, April 11, to address the move, as well as the first selectman’s push for a new senior-community center.

“I get that there might be some seniors who don’t like the move, or are confused by it, but we can’t have our employees working in unsafe and unhealthy conditions,” Herbst explained.

Specifically, he said that the building’s current layout forces four employees in the town’s Information Technology (IT) Department to work in a 200-square-foot space.

“They’re literally working on top of each other,” Herbst said in describing the office.

Furthermore, the town’s top official said that the assistant finance director doesn’t have her own office, the town’s building department doesn’t have enough room to file and process permitting inquiries, and the tax collector’s office doesn’t have security glass.

If that weren’t enough, the fire marshal’s office and the building department are working in the basement of Town Hall.

“We wouldn’t tolerate this with our schools and we shouldn’t tolerate with our town’s employees,” Herbst said.

New neighbors

When asked about members of the senior center becoming the Probate Court’s new neighbors, Judge Rowe said he looks forward to building on that relationship “if that’s where we end up.”

“There’s no absolute answer to when and where we’ll be going, but the senior center is the most likely location,” he told The Times.

Rowe said he met with the first selectmen in all three towns earlier this year and that a relocation to Easton was not feasible and no space was immediately available in Monroe.

“One of the reasons why we’re in Trumbull is because a majority of the citizens we serve are here and it’s a location that’s accessible to the entire district.”

Having the courtroom space helps, too.

In the senior center, the courtroom would be located in what’s now the library.

“The conference room and court space have to be kept pretty much the same size,” Rowe explained. “The other thing we need is room for storage, and that needs to be kept on-site in either fire-proof cabinets or in a vault.

“We need to have access to files at all times, so they’ll be coming with us wherever we end up going.”

Implementing a plan

The idea is to make the move happen by Aug. 1 — or some time in the late summer.

In the meantime, the next step is to implement a plan that doesn’t disrupt senior activities at the center.

“We’re in the process of developing an outline that will minimize any adverse impact to the programs going on in the senior center,” Herbst said.

“As we discuss that process, we’re simultaneously planning to revamp Town Hall and move the building department and fire marshal out of the basement and make some more space for other aspects of the building that have been ignored for far too long,” he said. “There’ll be no additions to the buildings and we will make sure that the costs are minimal.”

Rowe said he’s seen other Probate Courts move in the past — a process that has taken years to complete in some cases.

“It will be a challenge, but we’ll expedite the process and put the shoulder to the wheel to make it work,” he said.

What about the district?

Herbst said the location switch has been approved by leaders in Easton and Monroe, who split the cost of the probate district in thirds with Trumbull.

Connecticut is divided into 54 probate districts, each of which is presided over by a judge of probate who is elected to office for a four-year term.

Probate Courts have jurisdiction over many matters, such as probating wills and the administration of estates, overseeing testamentary and living trusts, determining title to real and personal property, construing the meaning of wills and trusts, and committing those suffering from mental illness, alcoholism, or drug addiction to an appropriate facility.

“We like having the probate district here in Trumbull,” Herbst said. “That’s why we think this plan works best for our town and the district as a whole.”

“Our first option would be to stay right where we are, but we realize that’s not possible, so we’re more than willing to make the new location work for everybody,” Rowe added.