HARVARD -- Selectmen next week will close and sign the warrant for a Special Town Meeting later in October that will include an article asking for more money to fund the Town Hall building project, now $1.1 million in the red.
This, in addition to the three solar farm articles on the warrant via citizen's petition, which call for the STM in the first place.
In a joint session at the end of the selectmen's meeting Tuesday night, the board conducted a roundtable discussion about the Town Hall building project shortfall with members of the Finance and Capital Plan committees and the Town Hall Building Committee.
For about an hour, the three groups rehashed the issue from individual and collective standpoints. They touched on close-up and long-view perspectives and positing probable causes and envisioned effects of the cost overrun in terms of the current renovation and future building projects such as Hildreth House.
But the primary focus was on problem-solving. Specifically, how to bridge the $1.1 million gap between the Town Meeting-approved $2.9 million budget to rehab the 146-year-old municipal building, whose maintenance has arguably been deferred past the point of no return, and the near $5 million cost projections on the table now for a complete rehab geared to last for at least the next 20 years.
People have heard the assessments and seen the designs and chose the re-do over other options, such as patching and shoring up the old building outside and polishing up the existing layout within or tearing down the structure to start again someplace else.
Over the past couple of years, nonessential items have been removed, corners that can reasonably be cut have been shaved off and historic and zoning requirements have been met, according to THBC Chairman Pete Jackson.
And with an assessed value of $600,000 and a renovation that will cost a certain percentage of it, value-added ADA upgrades and remedial measures such as asbestos removal are legal must-dos, Chairman Marie Sobalvarro pointed out. As for whether the new estimates can be counted on to stick, given that construction costs rose precipitously over the last several months, she pointed to the two contractor bids, locked in for now: $3,723,783 and $3,638,700, respectively.
Raising the contingency fund to 10 percent should cover cost hikes through the end of the project, she said, a best guess backed by the Owners Project Manager.
At this point, the project, which has already moved through architectural design, planning and zoning phases and has eaten up $1 million of the original budget, hinges on whether townspeople agree to move forward with the makeover plan on the table now, which is the path the selectmen, FinCom, Capital Committee and the THBC agreed to take.
"What happens if they say no?" asked Town Administrator Tim Bragan, given sunk costs and the must-do nature of the work ahead.
"We deal with it," Selectman Ron Ricci responded.
Leo Blair, admittedly not the project's most ardent fan, said it's key to put all the financial facts out there for taxpayers to review. "It may be a good idea ... but it's important that the model is full disclosure" from the get-go, he said. "Let's sell the truth." How much will it cost and what people get for it, for example.
From the FinCom end of the table, Debby Ricci said it would be a big mistake not to take the Town Meeting and ballot question route. Even if the selectmen have the authority to move ahead on their own, tapping into existing resources such as the reserve and capital plan funds and trusts under their control. "I think they (townspeople) do need to know what this will cost," she said. "But if we try to fund it without a ballot question and folks are against it," the backlash might put future building projects at risk. "That's why we should do it," she concluded.
In the end, the assembly of planners and decision-makers agreed to ask the people, within the framework of the upcoming STM, if they want to absorb the added cost of the Town Hall building project that previous town meetings have supported. The article the selectmen tasked themselves with crafting will be coupled with a separate ballot question asking for authorization to borrow the $1.1 million, with the outcome to be decided later at the polls.