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Joyce Endee

Selectmen agree to focus town office efforts on Brewster Hall

Goal is to present a single proposal to voters in 2010

June 18, 2009
WOLFEBORO — The main focus of a selectmen's work session on June 10 was on what to do about town offices following voter rejection of proposals for the second year in a row.

In 2008 voters rejected a $6.7 million restoration proposal for town offices in Brewster Hall and in 2009 three separate warrant articles relating to town offices – repairs to Brewster Hall, purchase of an existing building and land for town offices on Varney Road, and the evaluation of a potential site for new town offices on Lehner Street – were all voted down.

In his opening remarks at the work session, Selectman Chair Dave Senecal said his goal was to present one proposal to town voters next March. He said he felt that despite the defeat of the proposals in March, "we are not back to square one" – all of the information gathered and work done by the Town Hall Options Committee (THOC) can be used to come up with a new proposal.

While not ruling out new offices in the future, Senecal said "I don't see building a $2.5 million new building – voters won't go for it." Instead in the interim he sees the need to make improvements to Brewster Hall for the sake of employees.

Selectmen Marge Webster agreed that the board "should look at what employees are dealing with…I don't think John Q. Public is opposed to adequate facilities for town employees." She said she was "open to anything that will address the problems employees face" and added that the board should keep in mind that bond rates are at their lowest ever.

Selectman Sarah Silk agreed that, "the economy does not support a new building," but investments that save money by increasing energy efficiency and the "livability" of a building should win support. She said, "we shouldn't ask others to meet life safety codes if the town does not for its own employees…We must meet the needs of our employees, make them safer and more healthy."

To Selectman Kristi Ginter, "the most difficult part is that someone is not going to be happy" with whatever choices are made. Her concern with Brewster Hall is that even if improvements are phased they might not meet all the needs. "We have to look at all of the things that need correction," including mold, air quality, safety issues and meeting Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements. "If we meet ADA we might not have a meeting space."

Personally Ginter says she feels the building would be "best served by a private group," but she is willing to give her full support to whatever proposal comes forward.

Concern about costs

Selectman Linda Murray began by stating that "smart growth" calls for concentrating town services, and in that context focusing on Brewster Hall makes sense.

She sounded a cautionary note about looking for a significant amount of money for town offices, reviewing what voters have been willing to spend on capital projects since 2003. With the exception of the default budget year of 2005, that has ranged from $10.9 million in 2007 to $1.5 million in 2009, with a downward trend over the past three years. Nearly all of that spending has been on infrastructure (water, sewer and electric department), "not much on buildings."

Furthermore, Murray said she was concerned about the impact on the operating budget of interest and repayment costs for projects already bonded. These payments will reach $500,000 in 2010 and add another $110,000 in 2011 – and the town has another $1 million already committed that has not been bonded yet. She said she was concerned about the operating budget because, "we have still not made up for what was lost in the 2005 default budget."

She pointed out that the town's Capital Improvements Program calls for spending $59 million, not including a new public safety building, a new library and many other projects.

In the meantime taxpayers have been suffering: the decline in the Dow Jones Industrial Average from 14,000 to 8,500 has hurt people's investments. The state is looking at higher fees and taxes and less revenue sharing. Credit card debt and the national debt itself are high, and unemployment in New Hampshire is 6.7 percent and rising. "People on the street are more concerned about roads and how high taxes," she said, rather than taking on new projects.

"I believe the board of selectmen should repair buildings rather than building new – addressing ADA and life safety – and consider phasing. If funds are dedicated to repairing Brewster Memorial Hall, then we should do less elsewhere," Murray said. As an example she suggested that rather than build a new building for Foss Field, the Community Center on Lehner Street should be used during the day – "It has a high maintenance cost and has little use now."

Senecal pointed out that voters did not approve money for building assessments. He said an asset management plan is very important nonetheless so that the town can keep up with minimal repairs.

He went on the say that does want to get into appointing a full committee like THOC. Instead he proposed getting together to agree on minimal repairs to Brewster Hall. Nothing was done for years outside by the Brewster trustees and nothing was done inside by the town. Selectmen should be aware of tax consequences, however: "How much more can anyone bear in taxes?" he asked.

Webster said she was going to play "devil's advocate" and said the board should look at all town buildings. She also expressed concern about what would happen to employees during any repairs.

Senecal replied that many companies will do work at night or off hours when no employees were present. In response Webster cited "the mess [Town Clerk] Pat Waterman faced after work was done in off hours."

Ginter urged that the board consider fully utilizing facilities the town owns, like the Community Center, and getting rid of facilities "that are no longer assets." She said she was also concerned about getting into repairs at Brewster Hall that might turn out to be much more extensive than anticipated and more expensive than building a new building. Webster said she shared the concern about "hidden surprises" in doing "temporary fixes." She said taxpayers want to know the "full impact" of any course of action.

Ginter added that the town needs to know the "full impact of not complying with ADA."

Silk asked Town Manager Dave Owen if he has heard from town employees about the issue.

Owen replied that, "the sense is that employees like working at Brewster Memorial Hall but just want it improved." He took advantage of being asked to point out that the Economic Stimulus Program includes block grants for energy efficiency improvements. While the 10 largest municipalities are getting set amounts, "what's left will be open to competitive grant applications." "We may be able to package some Brewster Memorial Hall improvements and combine them with town-funded projects in an application," he added. Details on the grant application process have not yet been released, Owen said, but Town Planner Rob Houseman is following developments closely.

Murray said she was getting the sense that Ginter and Webster had reservations about doing repairs to Brewster Hall.

Ginter and Webster both replied that they simply want to know the full impact in the long term

"Taxpayers want to know the impact," Webster said.

Other business

Also at the June 10 meeting, the board reviewed a spreadsheet prepared by Murray and expanded by town staff listing all town buildings, their assessed value, age, square feet and lot size, operating expenses, condition (based on property tax card), and rental income. The board agreed that the information was a good place to start in making plans.

Dave Ford said he is now working with a UNH intern, junior Bill Bernaise, on completing a road surface management plan and a water treatment upgrade plan this summer. Ford said there is an asset management software that the town looked at two years ago but did not pursue because of its cost. The intern will be working with free software provided by the state.

Senecal said that Knight Security complained to him about problems found in buildings in Clark Park used by the historical society: animal damage in the school house and a roof leak at the fire station building. Owen said he would look into those complaints.

The board signed an Original Loan Agreement with the state that will forgive 50 percent of the loan funding improvements to the Wastewater Treatment Plant. Wolfeboro is the first community to sign such an agreement, which is being funded by the stimulus plan. Selectmen had voted at their June 3 meeting to sign the agreement.

Owen reported that the town received four bids on the Railroad Station repair project by the June 10 deadline. Ford will review the bids and make recommendations to selectmen at their next meeting on June 17.

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