HARVARD -- Despite previous Town Meeting and ballot results supporting the Town Hall renovation and reconstruction project, as designed and proposed, a bid to up the approved $3.9 million cost estimate by another $1.1 million was turned down at the Oct. 16 Special Town Meeting. An article asking for the extra money to complete the project failed to muster the two-thirds vote required for the motion to pass.
When selectmen discussed their options in light of the vote Oct. 23, a roomful of residents had their say.
Jared Wollaston, who spoke up for the article at the STM, iterated his stand. Citing a career "protecting houses and old buildings," he "cherishes" the opportunity to rescue this one after 15 years of "band-aid" fixes, he said.
He is disappointed that the $1.1 added cost wasn't better explained, he said, including how it would be paid via debt exclusion and that two of the selectmen -- Ron Ricci and Leo Blair -- voted against the article.
Reminding the board that "a lot of time" has gone into the project, he favors spending the extra money for the restoration to be done right, he said. "You know this building needed that extra $1.1 million."
Wollaston said he and others will take up the cause for the Nov. 5 election, when voters will get a second chance to say yes.
"We're going to get the vote out," he said, predicting the second try would prevail.
Wade Holtzman, who co-chaired the Town Hall Building Committee from 2011-12 and has followed the project closely since, took an opposite stand.
In his view, the $3.9 million was not a realistic figure but an "enormous deception" by the two firms. "They should be held accountable" for their errors," which voters shouldn't have to "pony up" another $1.1 million to cover, he said.
Former selectman Bill Marinelli said that while both Wollaston and Holtzman made valid arguments, he did not favor spending more on the project. "There have been real problems," he said. For example, the THBC "went off on its own and the process got away from them."
Marinelli also cited "too much focus on the interior" of the building and a proposed new HVAC system "way out of proportion" to its function. "It's time for the (selectmen) to take control," he said, since the THBC can only offer to "pour more money" into the project rather than work with the current budget. Motives and mistakes aside, "cost is key," he said. And with more projects in the queue, it's better to get it done than to get it perfect.
Don Green agreed. But, unlike Marinelli, he had no empathy for the other side. "I find it offensive and an insult" for some people to tell others what they can afford, he said, referencing remarks about the added $1.1 million translating to a small uptick in taxes. "There are people in this town with average jobs, average incomes..." he said, and selectmen should take note when determining the parameters of the Town Hall project. "Not everyone can afford what (selectmen) think they need," he said.
Former selectman and current THBC member Tim Clark said he found "lots to agree with" in what others had said, but selectmen's decision shouldn't be swayed by public opinion now.
Citing analyses of town building needs he had done with former resident and architect Doug Coots, and reuse recommendations selectmen subsequently "shelved," Clark pointed to previous initiatives that fell short and projects with "sketchy" results as indicators of what can happen when too many corners are cut. The Town Hall meeting room and new bathrooms that were carved out of the existing apse that once housed the police station, for example, and no long-range plans for the other buildings.
Hildreth House got a new roof and siding, mostly thanks to Community Preservation Act funds tapped for the purpose and a partial paint job with prison labor. But until recently, there was no plan to address the big picture, Clark said.
As for the current Town Hall building project, it has been "under the direction of the selectmen" and the town approved it five times. "There has been no subterfuge, no deception," he said.
Clark reminded the selectmen of the oath they had taken. "This board is responsible for care of public buildings, directing subcommittees and putting articles on the warrant," he said. And it's up to them to act responsibly, despite criticism, he said. "I think we have a credible plan," he said.
MaryHelan Turner also favored moving forward, added cost and all.
Rhonda Sprague did not. "This is old," she said of the decision selectmen were struggling with again. "We've continued to head down this road" even as cost projections went up and despite other projects on the waiting list. "This is a huge amount of money," she said.
Sprague, a Realtor, said people on fixed incomes can't continue to pay higher taxes. Some are opting to sell and move out of town before the tax bill goes up even more.
She conceded that it's taken a long time to get the Town Hall project on line, but she suggested scaling back to do it "in a more responsible way."
All pending projects considered, what would the final tax rate be? Sprague asked.
The current rate is $16.68 per thousand dollars of assessed value, Chairwoman Marie Sobalvarro said, with the new tax rate to be set in December.
But Sprague persisted. "Is there an estimate of the final cost?" she asked.
"I don't think we can answer Mrs. Sprague's question," Ricci said, but he predicted it would be a "big number."
"We all have to budget and plan for the future," Sprague said, and she worries there won't be enough money to pay for everything the town needs and wants.
"Buildings are just buildings," she concluded. "People and programs are more important."