Upkeep of governor’s residence a dicey issue in tough times

As tempers flare over the contentious vote and revote on a labor concession deal, one of the questions that occasionally pops up on comment boards is this: Is the Malloy Administration really spending money to redecorate the governor’s mansion as it is demanding labor givebacks?

Technically, the state isn’t redecorating the Executive Residence (the term long preferred to “mansion”), but a portion of the 102-year-old home occupied by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and his wife, Cathy, is getting a makeover courtesy of Connecticut Cottages & Gardens magazine. No taxpayer money is to be used.

Executive Residence

The Executive Residence

However, the state has spent about $57,000 on repairs to the home since Malloy became governor in January, including $44,000 on an air-handling unit, $2,000 on a hot-water heater and $11,351 to refinish hardwood floors.

It is delicate issue for every elected chief executive whose office comes with a publicly owned residence: To renovate or not to renovate, especially in tough economic times.

“Every governor, at least as long as I’ve been around, is very sensitive to spending money on the residence,” said Wilson H. Faude, a member of the Governor’s Residence Conservancy, the non-profit group that helps maintain the home.

The 19-room Georgian Colonial, which sits on a five-acre estate in Hartford’s West End, is set to get fresh wallpaper and paint in the first-floor rooms as part of a project overseen and paid for by the magazine.

“My understanding is they approached the residence about doing it, then they can have a big splash in their magazine,” Faude said.

No budget was available for the project by the magazine, which also has editions for Westchester and the Hamptons.

Timothy Bannon, the governor’s chief of staff, said the magazine’s decorating project will be confined to the first-floor rooms, which are considered public spaces. They are used by Malloy for meetings and are available to non-profit groups on a limited basis.

Care and upkeep of the residence has been a sensitive issue for many governors since it was acquired by the state in 1943 and occupied by Gov. Raymond Baldwin and his family Sept. 14, 1945.

“That house became some kind of political third rail,” Bannon said. “Nobody wanted to spend any money to protect it.”

William A. O’Neill declined to spend money on it during his decade as governor. He was succeeded by Lowell P. Weicker Jr., who famously ordered repairs after a chunk of ceiling plaster fell, nearly striking an old colleague, Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.

An $80,000 project to replace old plumbing ballooned to $318,000 in the fall of 1991, when emotions were high over the passage, at Weicker’s insistence, of the state’s first broad-based income tax. With a grant from UST Corporation, the Weickers also replaced the Depression-era kitchen.

Weicker revived the non-profit conservancy to raise money to maintain the home and grounds. During John G. Rowland’s 9½ years as governor, the conservancy raised about $1 million for furnishings, upkeep and the purchase of an adjacent cottage, where Rowland’s stepsons lived.

Faude said the conservancy, whose most recent tax return listed only $21,725 in assets, has not authorized any significant expenditures since he joined the board in April as its secretary, nor has it conducted any fundraising.

According to the conservancy’s 2010 tax return, its income of $11,302 came through the sale of Christmas ornaments bearing a likeness of the home. It spent $16,082 on maintaining the residence and grounds.

Faude said the estate needs extensive work to the grounds, including garden walls, but the governor has discouraged the conservancy from pursuing projects beyond the donated first-floor makeover.

“He knows this is not the moment to even raise the hand, that there are more important issues,” said Faude, the former director of the Old State House in Hartford. “He has not broached other improvements, other than maintenance. I think he is right.”

Bannon said the governor views the residence as another state asset to be maintained. Other work since he became governor includes termite protection and some tree trimming.

“He is not going to be penny-wise and pound foolish,” Bannon said.