West Tisbury fincom balks at $5.5M town hall price
The $5.5 million reconstruction of the West Tisbury town hall will include a substantial addition designed to complement the historic architecture of the original building.
Call it sticker shock. Although West Tisbury town officials expected that the cost of the West Tisbury town hall renovation project would increase when they opened construction bids last week, the $5.5 million price tag was too much for the town finance committee (fincom).
With four members present, the finance committee Friday voted 3-0 with one abstention not to recommend a Proposition 2.5 override article on the Nov. 16 special town meeting warrant seeking an additional $1.8 million on top of the $3.7 million previously approved by voters to pay for the town hall project.
The Prop. 2.5 request must also be approved at a special election on Nov. 17.
"It is just too much money," Sharon Estrella, fincom chairman, told The Times this week about why the fincom voted not to recommend spending money on a project that has been in the works for years.
The fincom vote came one day after selectmen opened the only two bids received from two general contractors. Barr Inc. of Putnam, Conn., builder of the new Oak Bluffs Library, was the low bidder with a price of $4,399,000. JK Scanlon Inc. of Falmouth, a company closely associated with many Island projects, submitted a bid of $4,470,000.
The total estimated project cost of $5,502,407 includes architectural and engineering fees ($305,000), fixtures and equipment ($136,000), an 8.5 percent contingency fee ($382,330), temporary office space and relocation costs ($35,000) and other costs such as a new playground.
Ernest Mendenhall, chairman of the town hall building committee, said the fact that the two bids came in so close together on such a large project indicates that neither one is too far out of line. Mr. Mendenhall said the building committee knew the bids were going to be higher but had hoped it would not be by as much.
Town building committee members attributed the dramatic increase in just one year to cost estimates, submitted by the town's previous architectural firm, that did not accurately reflect the added cost of building on the Island and an overall rise in the price of building materials.
Mr. Mendenhall, West Tisbury building inspector, said it is unfortunate that the town did not build two years ago or even five years ago when planning first started. The delay only added to the costs. "It has taken forever to get this far and unfortunately these prices are just going up and it is not going to get any cheaper," he said.
Asked to comment on the fincom decision not to recommend the request for more money, Mr. Mendenhall said, "They are just doing their job."
He added, "Am I happy that they voted not to recommend it? No."
Mr. Mendenhall said he is also concerned about costs, but has not heard any alternative plan.
Referring to the current building's many deficiencies, he said, "Sooner or later we need to have a town hall that is legal and has handicap access and so on."
"They should go back to the drawing board, start over," said Ms. Estrella about the choices facing the building committee. She described the plans for the town hall renovations as elaborate and elegant but said that at this point in time, they were "not quite right."
Ms. Estrella is concerned about rising property taxes and the many expenses facing the town of West Tisbury, including school costs and legal bills. She said pushing taxes higher would only add to the problems associated with the lack of affordable housing. "There is an awful lot out there, and I don't know where they think the money is going to come from," she said. "That is the scariest part of all."
Acknowledging that he is not a builder and that the members of the building committee have done a great deal of work, fincom member Alex DeVito said, "Still, $5.5 million for a town of 2,600 people or so, that is $2,200 each, or something like that."
Mr. DeVito said that although town expenses are rising there is no question that something must be done with the town hall but is not sure what that might be. "We are hoping that somehow, someone, somewhere can find some way to solve the problem at a lower cost," he said.
Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter, selectman and building committee member, was the one member of the fincom to abstain. Explaining his vote, Mr. Manter said that since he was only presented with a motion calling for a vote to not recommend the project, he decided to abstain.
Mr. Manter said he did not have an opportunity to vote to recommend the spending article. Asked if he would have voted in favor, he said he did not know the answer. Mr. Manter said he is torn by the issue of what to do with the town hall. "It is an important historic building and serves an important need," he said.
More than one year ago at a special town meeting on October 26, 2004, West Tisbury voters approved —and then confirmed in a special election on Nov. 2 —a $3,705,000 bond issue to pay for renovations to the town hall.
The plan they approved and now in need of more money was the second presented to voters by the town hall building committee. In April of 2003, voters were presented with a plan to spend $3,779,000 for a renovation that included a wing on the Music Street side of the building, as well as an expansion of the building to the west to accommodate an elevator. The Music Street wing would have contained a large meeting room, the assessors' office, and much-needed storage spaces. Cautioning against delays, selectman John Early, chairman of the building committee, warned at the time that, "Building costs will only increase."
A majority of town meeting attendees voted for the proposal, but not the two-thirds required. Though the issue had been rendered moot by failing at town meeting, voters rejected the plan by a much wider margin at the ballot box two days later.
In revising the plan, the building committee paid attention to objections raised at the 2003 town meeting and to responses to a questionnaire sent to all voters earlier that winter. The responses indicated, among other things, that 82 percent of responders wanted to keep town government at the same location, and 70 percent wanted a large meeting room in the town hall. Town hall employees also pressed hard for a large room for public hearings and meetings.
The new plan dispensed with the extra wing but added a full basement to contain the meeting room and a larger vault, a bathroom, and storage areas.