Officials work on what's next for West Tisbury
This week outside executive secretary Jen Rand's office in the West Tisbury town hall, black crepe was draped over Bob Schwartz's color visualization of the $5.5 million restoration project voted down last Wednesday. The proposal, at least in anything like its present form, is dead, mortally wounded in town meeting and given the coup de grace in paper balloting the following day.
However, appropriations to pay the town's legal expenses in defending a suit brought by William Graham before the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board (ATB), which were defeated at the same town meeting, will live to see another vote shortly after the first of the new year, according to chairman of selectmen Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter.
The town hall
In the short term, West Tisbury building inspector Ernest Mendenhall told The Times, about $70,000 already appropriated for repairs to the present town hall will cover only replacing one (but not both) of the aging bathrooms and the badly leaking storm windows on the third floor. These repairs were not made when the money was appropriated, because extensive changes to the building were anticipated. However, $70,000 is not nearly enough to address the building's crumbling foundation and other structural problems.
Also in the short term, according to town treasurer Kathy Logue, West Tisbury will need to raise and appropriate about $250,000 to pay a loan which will fall due on June 15. Those funds were used to pay architects' and other fees, and were borrowed in anticipation of the $3.7 million project. Since the project is cancelled, another short-term loan cannot be secured and, of course, cannot be rolled over into a 20-year bond, as anticipated. Voters can expect to see the $250,000 on a warrant article at next April's annual town meeting.
In the longer term, the town still must consider what to do about the antique and deteriorating town hall. All the possible solutions will be expensive.
Mr. Mendenhall, chairman for the last two years of the town hall building committee, told The Times that his committee will hold its last meeting in the week after Thanksgiving and then make a final report to the selectmen. It will then be up to the selectmen to decide what to do next, he said, but it is clear that the town does not want to spend so much money on the old town hall.
Although finance committee chairman Sharon Estrella suggested in town meeting that the $3.7 million voted a year ago could be used for a different restoration plan or an entirely new building in a different location, Mr. Mendenhall was not sure that the money could be spent on a project so different from what the voters voted for a year ago.
The selectmen will appoint a new committee to consider what to do about the town hall, but Mr. Mendenhall predicted that not all of the present members will agree to be on it. For his own part, he said, he would not want to chair the new committee. "Do I want to head this again? No. But as building inspector and the person who knows the most about this building, I'll have to say yes to serving on the committee, if I'm asked."
Could the old building be repaired for $3.7 million? In Mr. Mendenhall's opinion, it could not. Even if the cheapest materials were used, necessary repairs to the foundation and structure, plus the requirement that the building be made handicapped-accessible, would cost at least $3.9 million. In the most economical plan, the addition on the west would hold only an elevator and a staircase, there would not be a bathroom on each floor, and neither the basement nor the third floor would be finished at all. The cheaper plan would include no new furnishings, and would use less durable finish materials and fixtures (carpet rather than wood floors, for example). Parts of the restoration would start needing replacement before the building was paid for, he warned.
The selectmen and the new building committee will also consider the possibility that a one-floor town hall might be built on town land elsewhere, such as the town's 3.1 acres at the end of Lamberts Cove Road. Such a plan would require a new feasibility study, new architect's plans, and new bids. Because the plan defeated last week took three years to get to bids, Mr. Mendenhall estimated that starting over from scratch would take at least two years and cost at least $4.5 million. "I'll be amazed if we save any money," he said.
Deborah Durland, architect for the defeated project, said on Sunday in an interview on WMVY that new plans could not be ready until the summer of 2007, and that by then increases in building costs would push the cost to $5.5 million, the same sum voters rejected last week, or even higher.
There were at least a few at last week's town meeting who said that the town should not ever appropriate money to pay for its defense of the suit brought by William Graham. Former candidate for selectman Cynthia Riggs opined, "I don't believe we should be paying this bill. The town did not commit itself to anything. It was the board of assessors that did. Also...we needn't have run up that high legal bill. It's my understanding that Mr. Graham offered at least three times to settle the case... I don't think we should be paying this $200,000 at all."
However, most who spoke on Nov. 16 conceded that the services were contracted for and rendered in good faith. Their objections were less with the town's defending itself than with possible irregularities in the bills from Coleman & Sons Appraisal Group and Vision Appraisals Technologies, and with the assessors and the selectmen for failure to follow correct procedures and properly validate the itemized bills.
Sharon Estrella, chairman of the fincom, spoke against the appropriations on town meeting floor, but she asked that the selectmen "get it right" and then come back to the town for approval. Executive secretary Jen Rand told The Times that the selectmen plan to do just that.
Members of the fincom contacted this week by The Times expressed a similar desire to "get it right." Al DeVito, who had voted to approve $55,000 for FY05 but not $200,000 in FY06, told The Times that he expects another special town meeting. "At least some of these bills will have to be paid," he said. "Ellen Hutchinson's bills have to be paid."
Pete Costas, who made an impassioned speech against the articles in town meeting, said that he has never looked for a way for the town to avoid paying its bills. "We're a stand-up town," he said. "We should pay our bills."
Would Mr. Costas vote to approve the bills if the questions raised by selectman Glenn Hearn were answered? Without committing, he responded with a tentative yes. However, after some thought, he added, "I think the fincom needs to be a part of the process. Just having [the bills] reviewed by the selectmen wouldn't be enough to get a yea vote from me."
None of the evils predicted at the town meeting last week have yet happened. Ellen Hutchinson, the town's attorney in the Graham case, has not resigned and was working on the case at the end of last week when she accompanied the chairman of the ATB to the Island to view the properties in dispute. She has not sued the town to be paid, nor have Kenneth Croft or Vision Appraisals Technologies. Kenneth Croft and Martin Coleman, president of Coleman & Sons Appraisal Group, will meet with the selectmen on Tuesday, Nov. 29, to discuss their billing. Plans to meet with Vision Appraisal Technologies are in progress, Ms. Rand reports.
While West Tisbury's failure or refusal to pay large bills must be reported to the financial community by town treasurer Kathy Logue on her annual Continuing Disclosure Form, the form is not due until March.
For the time being at least, there has been no disaster.