Finance Committee hesitant to endorse Town House renovation plans

By Tanner Harding | Oct 07, 2016

Marion — The Marion Finance Committee isn't yet ready to get behind a plan to spend almost $500,000 for the construction design to improve the aging Town House. That proposal will be up for a vote at Fall Town Meeting on Monday, Oct. 24.

The Selectmen, Finance Committee and Town House Building Committee met on Thursday night to discuss the issue.

The Finance Committee’s main concern is asking residents to spend $475,976 to complete the construction design for a project that it’s not convinced the residents have truly agreed to.

At a Selectmen meeting in May, the board endorsed a concept that would see the Town House receive an $11.9 million renovation.

On Thursday night, the Selectmen encouraged discussion between the two groups.

“Our biggest negative is that the citizens have never been asked if they want to proceed with a $12 million project,” Finance Committee Chair Alan Minard said. “This money is out of their pocket, and we spent another $300,000 and all of the sudden people are like wait what is this?”

Minard also said that despite assertions that residents wanted to preserve the Town House, he doesn't necessarily believe that's true, based on the number of people who have approached him and said otherwise.

Renovating the existing Town House would cost more money than building a new one, but due to its historic value, the Building Committee and Selectmen agreed on a plan that would preserve it.

Bill Saltonstall, a member of the Building Committee, spoke about the structure's historic and emotional value.

“The building’s scale and character mark it as the official center of our local government,” he said. “I appreciate the proud way the building stands there.”

During his committee’s research, members visited a number of other renovated town halls in the area, and said they were particularly impressed and inspired by Carver's.

“We saw clearly that the renovations allowed the building to serve with efficiency, while preserving the dignity of the structure,” Saltonstall said. “Our committee and architects who have studied the building feel that Marion’s Town House renovation could be equally as successful. The strong wooden frame would allow for the installation of the improvements needed.”

Currently, the Town House has not been renovated in 40 years. Hazardous building materials and poor air circulation have created unsatisfactory working conditions for employees.

The Building Committee also saw it as important to act soon, because other things in the building, such as the boiler, would soon be in need of repairs.

The Finance Committee stressed that while it doesn’t disagree that something needs to be done, it just doesn’t believe that “plowing ahead” and asking for so much money while the sentiment runs against the project is a good idea.

“There’s a good chance we’ll lose the article all together,” Minard said. “Maybe if it was $50,000 it would pass, but with this much money it really commits the town to the plan, whether they want it or not. We want to give the town a reasonable chance to say we’re for or against it.”

For the Finance Committee, another element that was recently added to the mix is the VFW building. Voters will also decide whether or not to accept the building as a gift at Fall Town Meeting.

With the potential availability of the VFW building, the Finance Committee wants to know if that could bring down costs for the project in any way.

“The VFW building has space for the Council On Aging and other things which might reduce space requirements for town house itself,” Minard said. “It could have some serious cost reductions.”

Minard also thought perhaps the VFW building could eliminate the cost of relocating offices while the town house is being renovated.

“What we’re asking is that you take advantage of the new information and new opportunities with the VFW building,” Minard said.

The Finance Committee also suggested that while the Building Committee is stuck in limbo to look for other cost reduction areas using the roughly $146,000 the Building Committee already has.

Town Administrator Paul Dawson said the Building Committee could get a 60 percent completed construction design for $239,000 which would leave the town asking residents for $93,000 instead of more than $300,000. However, without a fully completed construction design, the Building Committee still couldn’t give a completely accurate cost of the project to residents.

Resident Jay Ryder said he supports the project but believes the whole thing will be jeopardized without the support of the Finance Committee.

“I would love to see the town hall renovated where it is, but under the circumstances, unless you have the support of the Finance Committee [at Town Meeting] the project is going to be dead in the water,” Ryder said. “Until we have their support, it’s going to be very difficult to move forward. I think that’s the bottom line.”

Another resident, Bob Lane, lauded the work done by the Building Committee, but thinks the current situation has too many unanswerable questions to keep moving forward.

“I think that the money spent to date on the analysis has allowed the group to do a wonderful job, but that money shouldn’t be an excuse to go forward,” he said. “You have to have a fairly believable plan to gain the town’s support. This plan doesn’t make sense to me.”

An element that seemed to cause a lot of hesitance for residents was the possibility of adding the VFW building to the town. If voters do choose to accept the building, there will be costs there as well, as the building needs to be brought up to code.

Additionally, several residents pointed out, the town rents out part of the recreation facility at Atlantis Drive because it doesn’t need the space.

Between the extra space at the Atlantis Drive facility and the possibility of a whole additional building, residents felt that questions about space and costs in regards to those buildings needed to be answered first.

“I don’t know how we can have both questions when really the only question anyone wants to know is, can the town have the VFW building?” resident Chris Collings asked. “And what would you do if we get the VFW? There are too many loose ends to be asking the town for lots of money. I don’t think I can vote for spending money when we don’t know exactly what we’re doing yet.”

Resident Ron Wisner agreed and said the moving parts make the project more complicated, but that he sees the VFW building as a potential asset in multiple capacities.

“The VFW as a temporary space for the town makes a lot of sense to me, but it also provides an asset that could be sold to count against the cost,” he said. “We should take a page from the Federalist Papers and have a forum with everyone. It’s never been put before the town. It’s never been asked.”

Bob Raymond, head of the Town House Building Committee, said they held a few public forums in which the same group of people always showed up. Getting the word out to more residents has been a challenge.

“We’re going to have to work harder on that outreach for sure,” he said.

Ultimately, the Finance Committee decided it would need to have its own formal meeting before it felt comfortable moving forward with the proposal. Both sides did agree to meet again before Town Meeting.

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