HARVARD -- Selectmen on Tuesday night signed the 12-item warrant for Special Town Meeting, set for the following evening.
Over the course of a two-hour meeting, they discussed details and debated pros and cons for specific articles, parceling out those each board member would present and voting on which ones to endorse.
They ended up split on four articles, including Article 1, which calls for more money to continue the Town Hall building project, the budget for which now exceeds a previous town meeting appropriation by $1.1 million.
Taking the issue twice around the table, members weighed in.
Lucy Wallace favored recommending the article. "We've been working on this for a number of years," she said, citing several town meeting votes for a large-scale renovation project versus continued patchwork repairs done "in fits and starts."
Acknowledging that the timing was off, with contractor and material costs escalating just as the project nears the construction phase, Wallace said it was time to act anyway. "We need to go forward," she said, or it will just cost more later.
But Ron Ricci said the cost hike was too high. When he first joined the board, Town Hall and other municipal buildings were being evaluated, with projected makeover costs less in total than the price tag for one building now. Spending over $5 million to provide office space for ten people is "a little rich for my blood," he said.
He conceded that "something" must be done about the old building's deteriorating condition, but expending another $1.1 million is too much. Its problems could be solved for a lot less, he said, especially in light of "other demands" vying for taxpayer dollars.
Leo Blair said his concern centered on process and public opinion based on emotion rather than information. "It's remarkable to me that high profile projects like this create so much confusion," he said, citing a recent conversation with people who were both "smart" and "involved," and still had misconceptions about the Town Hall project.
Blair posited that some people's "investment" in the building was more emotional than practical, perhaps rooted in nostalgia for "entertainment" on the second floor, with its 19th-century stage buried beneath years of clutter. He suggested sticking to the facts.
"It's fine to make an informed decision to spend money," he said, but the proposed solution to the over-budget dilemma in this case might be misleading. A debt exclusion, the Finance Committee-recommended funding source for the added amount, isn't free, Blair said.
"As a board, we should focus on the debate," he continued, adding that the current Town Hall crisis underscores the need for selectmen to be "closely involved" with committees they appoint to oversee future building projects.
Stu Sklar said that despite the "unfortunate" shortfall, Town Hall has needed TLC for over 30 years. The roof leaks. The cupola is in bad shape. Shingles are falling off. No question, the old building needs major work now, he said.
Sklar said he's seen three building projects during his 12-year tenure in town and only one went well, the Library project, which came in on time and within budget. Now, the Town Hall project is over budget and it's too late to turn back.
"We need to move this project along," he concluded, even though it went up 20 percent and will raise town tax bills by the same percentage.
Chairman Marie Sobalvarro said it's surprising how long people have been studying the Town Hall issue. Her concern, she said, is that changes made now should last for the life of the debt incurred for the purpose. That, and removing asbestos from the second floor, which needs to be done anyway.
It's true the building isn't "chock full of employees," Sobalvarro continued, addressing Ricci's comment. But it is a "front face" and business center for the town.
Second time around, Wallace, too, addressed Ricci's comment. Besides the relatively few employees, town committees and other groups meet and work in the building, she said. More than a 10-person office space, Town Hall is "the town's house," she said, and the building's condition reflects value placed on its function. Right now, it looks "crummy," she said. "It's important to move forward" with the renovation project.
Ricci didn't dispute that the building's ills must be fixed; his objection was the cost hike. With $3.7 million in appropriated funds left, "there's something we can do for that," he said. "I don't think we're doing the wise thing..." to move ahead on the current track.
Blair agreed. With 20 years of interest added in, "this is an $8 million project, he said. As a builder himself, he said the price per square foot that amount represents to is too high and would have a "huge" impact on taxes, which have doubled over the last 10 years. Some residents can't afford it, he said.
"I'm pretty indifferent" to whether the article passes or not, Blair concluded. Siding with Ricci, he said needed repairs and upgrades that meet people's expectations could be done with money in project coffers now. Either way, the building will be fixed, but "we can do better for less," he said.
Sklar offered a different slant. "We don't live in a perfect world, he said. And public building projects are tough, often facing budget overages and almost always handled by committees that tend to disagree at one point or another. In his view, the Town Hall project is "relatively modest," but "something must be done" about the building now, he said. As for the "entertainment" factor Blair noted, Sklar did not see it as frivolous.
Staged productions and dances aside, he said open space on the second floor could accommodate 200 people for meetings or other gatherings, and is worth preserving.
Hopefully, with a beefed-up contingency fund and the current $1.1 million added cost, $5 million will be the final number, Sklar said, so he favored getting the job done.
In the end, the board voted three to two to back the article. Blair and Ricci said no.
For the rest, the board, after some discussion on each article, was split on four of the 12, voting three to two to support Articles 1 and 7, the town hall project and a request to authorize the selectmen to lease town property to erect cell towers, respectively.
Article 7 calls for the town to okay deals that are still more visionary than real. Aimed at closing emergency communications gaps, lease agreements with cell tower owner/operators could bring in at least $30,000 a year, Town Administrator Tim Bragan said. With two locations targeted, Hildreth House property and a 16-acre site on Bolton Road by the water tower, bids have gone out, Bragan told the board.
But Lucy Wallace had qualms about including the Hildreth site, which she said might be too close to the house. She asked if the idea was discussed with the Council on Aging, which is headquartered in the repurposed Victorian country house and uses it as a senior center. Told no such conversation had taken place, Wallace, who is the board's liaison to the COA and a former member, voted against recommending the article, as did Leo Blair.
Without much ado, the board voted in reverse on Article 9, two for and three against. Wallace and Sobalvarro said yes. Sklar, Ricci and Blair said no. The article calls for amending the town's dog bylaw to increase the penalty for failure to obtain a dog license, with the fee raised from $15 to $50.
On Article 11, the vote was four to one in favor of recommending a request from the Cable TV Committee for $35,000 to replenish its nest egg, diminished by recent spending to complete the studio construction project at The Bromfield School.
With school about to open and safety concerns in view, the HCTC had to use funds it now needs to buy equipment to finish site and interior work, liaison Stu Sklar explained.
With four of the five members in agreement, Wallace was the only hold out. She was concerned that another major expense, air-conditioning for the small server room, might be on the near horizon, although HCTC member Bill Johnson said it was not.
A/C equipment and installation could wait for the start of the next fiscal year in July, he said. Meantime, ventilation would keep the closet-sized room cool enough.