HARVARD -- Of the 1,490 voters who turned out to consider the single question on Tuesday's Special Election ballot, a debt exclusion request tied to funding an additional $1.1 million for the Town Hall renovation project , 649 said yes, but 841 said no.
After hearing the bid to up project funding had failed, selectmen at their meeting Tuesday night added that information to their growing file on the subject. They again tackled a dilemma they were wrestling with even before Special Town Meeting rejected a request for more funds last month, framed as an article on the warrant and contingent on subsequent passage of the debt exclusion ballot question.
Although more STM voters said yes than no to the added funding proposal, the motion failed to muster the two-thirds majority required to pass. But with the election pending, selectmen still had the option of calling another Special Town Meeting to ask again, if the measure passed at the polls. It didn't.
The selectmen themselves have been split on the issue. While they all backed the project, Ron Ricci and Leo Blair argued for the conservative side. That is, working with the $3.9 million voters previously endorsed, even if it means cutting corners.
Selectmen Lucy Wallace, Stu Sklar and Chairman Marie Sobalvarro favored finding a way to cover the higher amount.
Then and now, the debate is basically about whether the project design townspeople have consistently supported can move forward within the budget appropriated for it or not. And if not, should the selectmen push it forward anyway and try to come up with the additional money, with or without asking Town Meeting and with or without borrowing?
Last week, after STM but before the election, the selectmen agreed to revisit the issue at their next meeting. It was the last item on the agenda Tuesday night.
Besides election results, new data at the recent meeting included the outcome of an extra session held last Wednesday morning to grill the architects about why the project overshot its budget and if there were less expensive substitutes for items driving up the cost, such as vertical transport to the second floor (elevator versus lift) and the HVAC system they recommended, which about doubled the original estimate.
Also in the selectmen's updated dossier were answers to a list of questions Town Administrator Tim Bragan asked Town Counsel Mark Lanza on their behalf.
"It's not as cut and dried as you think," Bragan cautioned the board as he handed them a pair of documents, one of which answered their legal questions while the other spelled out the process for tapping into available, non-borrowing funding options for the Town Hall project, such as Free Cash and the Capital Planning and Investment Fund.
The question then became, how to incorporate the new information into the discussion and when to take it up again. Next week? Two weeks?
With two next meeting dates on the table: Nov. 12 and Nov. 19, three of the five members favored the earlier date. Two wanted to wait.
"I'm kind of overwhelmed by today's events," Leo Blair said. He suggested taking time to "noodle" before meeting again in two weeks. It's important for the board to carefully consider the next step and to be "entirely united" in their decision, he said.
Lucy Wallace, concerned about voting timelines and bid deadlines, said the board should meet next week to sift through the options. Stu Sklar agreed.
But Ricci said it might not matter. "Either you reduce project costs to do it for the original amount or come up with another million, but we may have to re-bid anyway," he said.
Blair agreed. "We think we're in a hurry, but even if the (General Contractor and subcontractor) bids expire, we don't have the money," he said. "So why are we in a hurry?"
"It could be we can't close the gap," Sobalvarro conceded. But the GC's bid is on hold to Dec. 11, which buys some time and she's not ready to close that window yet, she said.
Still, it sends a bad message to go back to another STM with the same question," Blair persisted. "This building is important to a lot of people...but there's a bigger issue," he said. That is, "What part of no don't you get?"
Selectmen were in agreement before, with all five voting to go ahead with the project, he pointed out. "The only thing that changed was the cost."
Sobalvarro said that was the tricky part. People voted for a $3.9 million project, but now there's a $1 million gap. "I want to discuss how to close it," she said.
"I believe most people want (Town Hall) renovated," Blair continued. But if the selectmen "rush" to call more STMs before figuring out a way to do it at a reasonable cost, "we look almost comic," he said.
Still, they have not reached the "do something else" stage yet, Sobalvarro countered.
Blair conceded the point, but he cautioned moving ahead with care.
"I think we're all in violent agreement" Sobalvarro concluded. "So we should come back on Nov. 12" prepared for a working session, she said. No votes, no decisions.
Sklar concurred. "We should go through our options...beat them to death," he said.
The board agreed to meet on both dates: Nov. 12 and Nov. 19 at 7 p.m.