West Tisbury town suspends hall re-do
A single vote by West Tisbury selectman John Early effectively ended progress on the troubled town hall building project, at least until the annual town meeting in April. The voters will decide then whether the project will be resumed or if the town will have to start all over.
The vote came on a motion by selectman Glenn Hearn to authorize architect Deborah Durland to expend an additional $36,000 to see whether a drastically scaled-down version of the original plan could be built for the approximately $3 million. The funds, not yet borrowed, remain from a $3.7-million appropriation, a sum which turned out to be inadequate to complete the project and which the voters refused to increase last November. Because selectman Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter was away, Mr. Early's negative vote made the tally 1 to 1 and defeated the motion.
The selectmen then voted to reserve a place on the annual town meeting warrant for an article, yet to be drafted, which will ask the selectmen to appoint a new committee to decide whether to find another solution to the decaying town office building, or else bring the struggling project back from the dead.
In moving to spend more money on the project, Mr. Hearn recommended that the selectmen authorize enough money to take one more step in the redesign. "As soon as it looks like it could not be made, it should be terminated," he said. "But right now I think there's a really good possibility that there can be enough [changes] in the new design that would allow it to be under the money that's appropriated. . . . For $36,000, we should take a shot."
Mr. Early, although stating that he feels the present location of the town hall is the right one for the town, went on to say, "I don't think we have enough of an appropriation to complete the project in a satisfactory manner. . . . I want this project to go ahead, but I want the town to be aware that it is probably going to cost more money than we've appropriated."
Ernest Mendenhall, chairman of the building committee, , commented that the scaled down project is too drastically reduced, although he had voted with his committee to go forward. "We've really gone from a project driven by the needs of the town for the next 20 or 30 years to a project driven by an allotment of money.... It's a shame to cheapen [the project] any further." He told The Times last week that his committee had voted only on the possibility of completing the project in some form, leaving the politics to the selectmen.
Citizen Les Cutler, who has become an outspoken opponent of the project, told the selectmen that in his view the project is "an extremely costly, ineffective solution." He called the architect's margins for possible increases in building costs inadequate and warned of "unknown and unforeseen" problems that might be uncovered once the work begins. He also predicted that even in the most optimistic of views the bids will be "well in excess of the funds available." Mr. Cutler warned that the town is likely to spend half a million dollars with nothing to show for it.
In response to a question from the audience, Mr. Early said after the vote that the project is on hold until April, when there will be an article on the annual town meeting warrant.
A ten-year process
The town hall building committee, of which the three selectmen are members, brought a plan to the voters at a special town meeting in the fall of 2004 to restore and update the dilapidated town hall building at the corner of Music Street and State Road. The design, priced at that time at $3.7 million, would jack up the structure and replace the crumbling foundation with a full cellar containing a meeting room and storage areas. An addition on the west end of the building would contain an elevator, a stairway, and restrooms on every floor. The third floor of the existing structure, now condemned for all but "light storage," would be made secure and used for offices. The plan, actually the second brought to the voters that year, was the result of ten years of committee meetings, town hall workers' input, architects' plans, and public meetings.
The $3.7-million plan earned the required two-thirds majority at the special town meeting, and a related bond issue passed in balloting the next day. However, bids for the project subsequently revealed that the original architect, Gale Associates, who had by then withdrawn from the project, had underestimated the cost by about 50 percent, and voters at another special town meeting in November 2005 refused to appropriate an additional $1.8 million to complete the project. Mr. Mendenhall draped black over the drawing of the proposed building, which still hangs behind his desk in town hall.
However, the project was not quite dead yet. The new architect, Deborah Durland, and a newly-expanded building committee thought that a drastically scaled-down version of the project might be possible for less that the approximately $3 million remaining from the original appropriation. Town counsel Ronald Rappaport and the town's bond counsel offered the opinion that it would be legal to spend the appropriated funds on a reduced project, but the selectmen have said they will consult with the town before authorizing such a drastic switch.
New plans and bid documents will cost $135,000, but Ms. Durland told the committee that it will cost only $48,000 to redraw the plans so that they could be professionally estimated, thus giving the town a sense of what is possible for the money available. The selectmen in December authorized her to spend $12,000 to begin studying that possibility, but held the rest of the $48,000 for a non-binding "sense of the meeting" resolution at a special town meeting on Jan. 17.
The selectmen later decided not to ask for the voters' opinion on Jan. 17, but Mr. Cutler introduced a resolution from the floor, and in a vote (which selectman Glenn Hearn argues was confusing and flawed) those present advised the town not to continue with the project. On Jan. 18, Mr. Manter proposed that the project be cancelled.
However, the expanded committee voted to recommend that the selectmen spend another $36,000 to acquire a professional estimate in order to get as much information as possible to present to the voters at the annual town meeting. The committee vote was 7 to 0, with Mr. Manter absent and Mr. Early abstaining.
It was that recommendation which led to Mr. Hearn's motion at last week's selectmen's meeting.