Maybe Marion needs to take a time-out

May 11, 2018

To the Editor:

Contrary to current rumor, I am not against the Town House renovation and never have been. I am also not for building new at the VFW site. In both my spoken and written commentary during the past year, I consistently stated that the decision should be up to the voters of Marion. I have worked hard to make sure the options – Town House and VFW – were properly vetted and fought for voters to get the information they need to make a well-informed decision.

The debate now is between those passionate about keeping the Town House where it is and those concerned about the cost and timing, particularly, given the big bills the Town is facing for critical infrastructure. Maybe the Town needs to take a “time out” to find a way to preserve the Town House, but to preserve it for less money than currently proposed or, at least, to delay the renovation long enough to make voters comfortable with the impact of pending infrastructure spending on their tax, water, and sewer bills.

Objectivity

The members of the Town House Building Committee (“THBC”) are very emotionally invested in renovating the Town House and keeping the Town’s administrative offices at Spring St. location. I am not and, as such, I hope I bring some objectivity to the debate. And, that the concerns I raise will help the Town work towards a decision in its best interest and fully supported by the voters.

Here are my concerns:

Voters' Right to Choose

The selectmen should not have pulled Article 15 (to approve a new building at the VFW site) from the Warrant for the May 14 Town Meeting. Whether you are for the Town House renovation or not, all voters should be disturbed by this action. It sets a bad precedent. It was wrong for the selectmen to take this decision away from the voters, particularly, for an issue so important and so surrounded with controversy. Voters need to find a way to send a message to selectmen, “Don’t do this again!”

Cost

Because the Town House Building Committee was so partisan in their approach, it was necessary to question their cost estimates, which I did the best I could, given my limited expertise on construction. At this stage, it is not helpful to further debate their cost numbers. We need to trust that they have done their homework and that they have put realistic cost numbers on the table. Projects such as this tend to run over budget despite best efforts to get the numbers right. People, who are knowledgeable on construction projects for public buildings, tell me we should expect the final cost to be 10 percent or more over budget.

Voters should be concerned that the Town and the Town House Building Committee had to be pressed to take a more in-depth look at the VFW option. The Town’s leaders have a responsibility to evaluate all options with the potential to save the town money, particularly on the expensive projects of this kind and should have supported, not resisted, the thorough assessment of the VFW option. The public deserves to know it if there is a less expensive option. In the end, the voters may opt for the more expensive option, but they should be given the choice.

The town now owes it to voters to thoroughly examine the idea of preserving the Town House and repairing it over time. This is proposed by Article 36 on the Town Meeting agenda. Article 36 was put together hastily to meet a deadline, so it needs work. It has appeal because it avoids debt and because repair projects each year would be eligible for Community Preservation funds. The outcome of the “preserve and repair” Article 36 approach may not be the perfect building envisioned by the Town House Building Committee, but it could be the best compromise solution for the town.

Affordability

In the eyes of many voters, the infrastructure projects are “must do.” The Town House renovation is not. Some people want the Town to delay the Town House renovation until after the town gets the major infrastructure projects behind it or, at least, until the expenses and the impact of those expenses on peoples’ pocketbooks are known. To buy this time, the town could extend the use of the current building, maybe indefinitely, by making some emergency repairs and catching up on deferred maintenance.

Voters want to know how these infrastructure projects will impact their real estate taxes, sewer, and waters bills. This is not about the “rich people on the harbor” as some have suggested. It is about the residents, who tell me that if sewer bills climb by another $100 per quarter, they or their grown children will have to move to Rochester or Wareham. These same people tell me $136 added to their tax bills will hurt. Before the Town House renovation moves ahead, the Town owes voters information regarding how the cost of these infrastructure projects will impact their budgets. To date, residents have been left in the dark.

My concern, as a finance person, is that we keep Marion in sound financial condition. This will gradually become more difficult given some of the financial challenges the town faces long term. I am uncomfortable with the total amount of dollars the town will have to borrow in the coming years for the Town House renovation and for infrastructure improvements. Do we know the Town’s debt capacity, i.e., the amount of debt it can issue and still stay in favor with its bond investors and the rating agencies? I would like to know that number before we start piling on more debt.

Right Priorities

Why the selectmen chose to put the Town House renovation ahead of the Village Infrastructure project mystifies me. (The Village Infrastructure and Capital project is a plan to fix roads and sidewalks, replace or line sewers, and improve storm water management in the Village, which was suspended after Phase 1A was completed in 2014, because of concerns about the cost of meeting EPA permitting requirements at the waste treatment facility.) Why did the Town decide to make the Town House renovation the number one priority, when the Town is facing large and unknown costs for upgrading our critical infrastructure of sewer, water and waste treatment? I can raise these questions. The voters should have the final say on the town’s priorities.

Town Meeting Monday, May 14, at 6:45 p.m.

As residents head to Town Meeting this Monday night, they should keep in mind that their vote on Article 14 is a vote on what the Town’s priorities should be. The Town House Building Committee promotes a real sense of urgency to start the Town House renovation they say because the plans are ready, and, with any further delay, the cost will go up. However, while we delay, the expense of these critical infrastructure projects is also going up. A six-month time out and cooling off period might be what the town needs. Keeping Marion affordable should be an important consideration for whatever we decide to do regarding the Town House.

By sharing my concerns with the public, I hope the voters will arrive at Town Meeting this coming Monday with their eyes wide open and with the information they need to make a well-informed decision when voting on Article 14 for the Town House renovation.

John Waterman

Marion, MA

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