HARVARD — Both the Finance and Capital Planning and Investment committees voted last week to support a citizens petition that seeks funding for plans to overhaul Town Hall and the Old Library without substantial additions.
The citizens petition also promotes a plan to use the Old Library as temporary space during the Town Hall rehab, as Council on Aging (COA) and cultural center space. The citizens petition will appear on the April 2 Annual Town Meeting warrant as Article 18.
The citizens petition arose in response to warrant Article 17, filed by the Municipal Building Committee (MBC). The MBC seeks funds to both overhaul and expand Town Hall and the Hildreth House with the latter serving as a dedicated COA center.
Both articles seek the same dollar amount, $225,000, for schematics, including architectural, structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, civil engineering, project management, land surveys, and legal services.
Both plans focus on two buildings, each including Town Hall. But the camps divide over its renovation with an expansion to include a new wing (MBC), or renovation within its present footprint (citizens petition). The groups divide again over expanding the Hildreth House for the Council on Aging (MBC) or the rehabilitation of the standing Old Library (Citizens Petition).
To move the ball forward in any event, the Finance Committee unanimously urged voters to approve one article or the other in a statement to appear on the warrant. “We cannot afford to defer required maintenance another year.” While the Finance Committee statement doesn’t single out which buildings are struggling with deferred maintenance, debate has centered on the needs of Town Hall and the Old Library, but not the Hildreth House, which has received $100,000 in Community Preservation funds in recent years.
The committee also encouraged that any approach approved be funded via a Proposition 2 1/2 debt exclusion. An override vote would occur three days later at the Town Election on April 5.
The Finance Committee voted 4-0 with two abstentions, to recommend the citizens petition to voters. The committee minced no words.
“Article 18 offers the most flexibility in addressing the town’s imminent space needs, required building renovation and affordability to the taxpayers. At the present time the town has adequate space capacity, thus expanding two of the three buildings as proposed in Article 17 is simply not necessary. What is necessary is the critically needed deferred maintenance on the Town Hall and Old Library that has been postponed for the last five years. Article 18 clearly addresses a defined functional use for the Old Library, a decision that has likewise been deferred for some time.”
Conversely, the Finance Committee voted against recommending MBC Article 17 on a 5-0 vote with one abstention. The Finance Committee tersely stated it “does not recommend” Article 17 and refers readers to its Article 18 statement for details.
On Wednesday, March 2, Finance Committee Chairman Bob Thurston abstained from his committee’s votes for Article 18 and against Article 17. “It wasn’t going to change anything. I could have voted for both. I just abstained to stay out of it. I have a lot of respect for the MBC and it’s not what they want.”
Thurston said Finance Committee members were nonplussed with language in the MBC article that calls for Town Hall renovation “and” expansion when the MBC provided information earlier that there would be two Town Hall plans — one with and one without expansion. “That was one thing that made it difficult for people,” said Thurston.
Thurston said his committee unanimously agreed a Proposition 2 1/2 override should be the funding vehicle for either project. “Everybody was on board. Basically you don’t want to take that amount of money out easily so we wanted to make sure the town was behind it.”
Thurston noted that either article can be modified on the floor of Town Meeting but only to a degree. “Townpeople don’t have to follow the language. There can be a friendly amendment. Even if not friendly, it can be changed. They can drop out a section. But they can’t change a building. They can’t switch out Hildreth to Old Library on the MBC plan, for example. It has to remain within the scope.”
“One should go forward and I’m willing to listen to the will of the town. I wish the MBC article was more exact in the fact that it was going to produce two plans — with and without expansion — and show ‘here’s what would happen if we stayed within the envelope’ and then ‘here’s the other one’ and ‘here’s what it would cost and here’s what you would lose.”
Thurston seemed torn about the turn of events. “I’m all for keeping Hildreth House as the Council on Aging. Who am I to say differently, though I do think it’s interesting to use the Old Library as interim space.”
Thurston noted, too, that the town has invested $100,000 worth of repairs in recent years into the Hildreth House.
Thurston agreed that waving the Hildreth House under the nose of a developer could be the most cost-effective way for the town to have the building renovated as a Council on Aging center at no to low cost, and gain attached affordable senior housing at the same time.
“I’ll give you the most amazing expansion for the Council on Aging for free or at cut-rate prices? That’s the best of both worlds,” said Thurston.
On Thursday, March 3, the Capital Planning and Investment Committee similarly supported the citizens petition, Article 18. The vote was 3-1 with Selectman Peter Warren cast the opposing vote. Member Cindy Russo was absent.
Chairman George McKenna said the majority agreed with the citizens petition along “three lines.”
* The committee opposes expanding either Town Hall or Hildreth House (the MBC proposal]) when there is “unused building capacity” at the Old Library;
* The committee cited the Feb. 5 QuadBoard straw poll that called for “flexibility” in the scope of work for the Town Hall and Old Library projects to address “deferred maintenance issues at both structures,” which was not included in the MBC warrant voted by the selectmen;
* That the town has already put a “sizable amount of money into the Hildreth House. Granted, most of it was from Community Preservation funds. But nonetheless it’s still town funds. We believe that’s not where the deferred maintenance dollars should be focused right now.”
McKenna said “the Capital Planning and Investment Committee is of the opinion that there’s enough functional space at the Old Library to accommodate the Council on Aging needs certainly for the short term, five-10 years. If it outgrows itself, then maybe there’s another site, a secondary venue or larger function space that may come down the road.”
McKenna said the Capital Planning committee agreed there is disparity in the MBC message that there’d be two sets of Town Hall plans — with and without an addition — versus the warrant language that outlines only an expansion approach.
“To me that was too decisive in terms of a conclusion of what’s needed,” said McKenna. “It was generally discussed over a number of meetings that we really need to be cautious about taking on a $9 million building project with so much uncertainty at both the state and local level.”
Annual Town Meeting takes place Saturday, April 2. The Town Election is the subsequent Tuesday, April 5.