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Warrant article for $4.5 million new building withdrawn

Proposal to purchase Bell Building rejected 3-2 by board

January 14, 2010
WOLFEBORO — During a long and sometimes heated meeting on Jan. 6, the Wolfeboro Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to withdraw the $4.5 million warrant article for a new three-story town office building on Lehner Street as well as its modified article for Brewster Hall repairs at the reduced level of $50,000.

The board endorsed a petitioned warrant article submitted by the Friends of Wolfeboro Town Hall for the full $110,000 recommended by town staff for the Brewster Hall repairs and improvements. The votes to withdraw the $50,000 article and to approve the $110,000 article were 4-1, with Selectman Kristi Ginter being the dissenter in both cases.

Selectman Marge Webster moved to create a new warrant article for $1.5 million, not bonded, to purchase the three-story Bell Building on Lehner Street for town offices. Ginter seconded the motion but it failed 3-2, with Chairman Dave Senecal voting against along with Selectmen Linda Murray and Sarah Silk.

Town office proposals

Even before the board discussed the two warrant articles related to town offices, members of the packed audience in the Wolfeboro Public Library meeting room made their views clear.

During the first public input session, former selectman Dwight Devork, who had been the chairman of the Town Hall Restoration Committee, said that budgeting should be done for any town office proposal, just as it had been done for town hall restoration proposal developed by McGinley & Kalsow, who prepared detail plans and solicited bids. The town ended up with five bidders. Devork criticized the current $4.5 million Lehner Street proposal as "premature," with no bidding process and no contingency fund, and asked that it be reconsidered. He said he feels the majority of people in town want the town office to stay where it is.

Henry Maxfield Sr. asked the question, "Why does the majority of selectmen want to maintain two buildings?" a question he repeated two more times later in the meeting. He also stated that he felt votes of this magnitude should be unanimous.

Peter Goodwin asked why the board of selectmen voted for a proposal that costs $1 million more than the $3.5 million proposed by the Friends of Wolfeboro Town Hall for renovating Brewster Hall. Senecal responded that he felt $3.5 million wasn't enough.

When Article B, the proposal to spend $4.5 million for a new three-story town office building on Lehner Street came up for discussion, Silk asked when the board will be holding a public hearing on accepting the gift of the drawing for this proposal, now that it was a warrant article. Senecal responded that the architect was not paid to produce them and that the architect himself said the value was less than $5,000. Silk said she was "appalled" that the board would want to proceed with plans of such little value. She moved to hold public hearings. Murray seconded but the vote failed 3-2, with Ginter, Senecal and Webster in opposition.

Senecal then moved to remove the $4.5 million proposal from the warrant and Webster seconded. Murray asked why. Senecal responded that while he thought they had good drawings and estimates to proceed, the town now has a chance to purchase the Bell Building for town offices at a lower cost.

Murray said she objected to substituting a replacement article with such sketchy information available and raised a point of order whether it is possible to introduce a new article during a bond hearing. She also said she was confused: she thought the discussion was about whether to build a new building for town offices vs. renovating an old business, and now the discussion is between "old and older."

Town Manager Dave Owen said that any article that required bonding would have to have a public hearing before Jan. 18 to make it onto the ballot.

When discussion of the proposal to drop the article was opened to public comment, Maxfield asked if the people being uprooted (town employees) have been asked about it and asked why "the board of selectmen insists on doing something that makes no sense." Senecal responded that he doesn't feel remodeling an old building like Brewster Hall is worth the money, adding that town employees don't feel safe in Brewster Hall and want to be in a safe place.

Allen Bailey asked what will be done with Brewster Hall if the offices are moved. Senecal responded that the town can lease, sell or take other options on the building, and said some of the options identified earlier were realistic and should be explored.

Judy Breuninger complained that the process of discussing town offices "has gone on and on" and said she was "sick to death of this." She said she wanted to know what was behind the "railroading of the Bell Building," saying "that location is not viable" and that the building has problems. "Brewster Memorial Hall should be town hall and employees can be in a clean and safe place."

Birch Hill resident David Doane said he agreed with Breuninger.

Former selectman Suzanne Ryan said she was glad the board is "pulling this warrant article," adding that she doesn't approve of going from one old building to another. She advocated putting the original $110,000 into Brewster Hall repairs and take another year to think.

Mimi Dye pointed out that towns have "signature buildings" and that Brewster Hall is Wolfeboro's. "Let's keep it."

Bob Lemaire asked if the Bell Building proposal involved leasing or purchasing it. Senecal responded that the idea was to purchase it.

The vote on the motion to withdraw the $4.5 million new building proposal was finally called and the board voted 5-0 in favor.

Brewster Hall repairs

With the Lehner Street proposal off the table, the board took up a petition article from the Friends of Town Hall for $110,000 to make necessary repairs and code-directed improvements to Brewster Hall. Joyce Davis from the Friends spoke in favor, saying the proposal to reduce the amount to $50,000 was "irresponsible." With no discussion, Silk moved to approve the article and Murray seconded. The vote was 4-1 with Ginter voting against.

Senecal pointed out that the earlier article for $50,000 (Article M) should be removed to avoid confusion. Webster made the motion to remove Article M and Murray seconded. The vote again was 4-1, with Ginter in opposition.

Bell Building purchase

Webster moved to approve a new warrant article for $1.5 million to purchase the Bell Building at 16-18 Lehner St. and furnish it, without bonding. Ginter seconded the proposal.

Webster read a prepared statement explaining the proposal. "The Historic Bell building, now known as the Drouin building, at 16/18 Lehner Street has an incredible possibility to resolve the current town office space for the Town of Wolfeboro and its employees for many future years. The building is 100 years old and has been restored to space that is more than adequate and meets all the ADA requirements and codes for it to be able to be immediately occupied by our employees.

"The building is adjacent to our town owned property and could easily be connected for future use. We were the fastest growing county in the last census and currently rank in the top two growing counties per capita, so not to look at this property is very short sighted for the future of the town and its needs."

Webster went on to point out that the town has "not been a good steward of our buildings" and there are employees in other departments outside of Brewster Hall that need "healthy and safe space to do the job that they are designated and charged to perform." She added that the rental income from continuing tenants would cover the maintenance costs for the building and that "the opportunity to purchase a building that is surrounded by town-owned property comes along once in one's lifetime and is a great investment for the future and addresses the potential growth needs as well as solves an immediate office space issue."

Webster admitted that parking and traffic on Lehner Street would be a question, but then she pointed out that the town only had 19 employee cars to deal with and just purchased a lot with 67 spaces behind the proposed building. "Today you can rarely find a parking space at the current office location, so why is parking now an issue?" Town office traffic does not create problems currently on Main Street, she added, "so why does one think traffic will be a crisis on Lehner Street?"

Of the $1.5 million proposed, $1,350,000 would be for the building and $150,000 for moving and fitting costs. Annual rents are $62,483. The third floor of the building is completely available along with 1,700 square feet on the first floor.

Ginter asked why not bond the $1.5 million. Webster responded that the outright purchase would add a one-time 75 cents to the tax rate, according to Finance Director Peter Chamberlin, and only a majority vote would be needed to pass, instead of the 60 percent required for bonding.

All five selectmen said they had toured the building, escorted by owner Victor Drouin, who was present at the hearing. Ginter spoke approvingly of the building as being completely retrofitted and offering a "turnkey situation" ready to move employees in right away. "There was no smell in the basement," she added.

Silk complained that except for floor plans, she has "no information on the building" and expressed concern about the minimal documentation.

Murray thanked Drouin for giving tours. She said the building was renovated in 1999 and Drouin admitted it leans to the right. She pointed out the roof is flat and would be expensive to fix or replace, that the immediate parking near the building was leased to the first floor tenant, that there was no evaluation of hazardous waste, and that the six tenants have leases expiring from 2001 to 2044 (meaning that the town will not have full use of the building for many years). She also said the building evaluation the board was given was for a bank loan and that an independent appraiser was needed: the difference between the town's $814,900 assessed value and the $1,350,000 appraised value was the value of the rents. "Why would the town pay for potential rental income?" she asked.

Murray then pointed out that there is not enough space to hold current office needs now 5,495 square feet, less than the space used in Brewster Hall. "I don't see what the purpose is of taking a commercial property off the tax rolls and moving town employees into less space."

Murray ended her remarks by repeating her concern about how the board is now conducting its business, how she is disturbed when information is withheld and wrong information is given to the public. "Lack of information takes away my ability to make a decision. Voters elected me to represent them on a five-member board. Information should be given to all members equally and nothing withheld. The board should not act in subgroup," she concluded, to audience applause.

Ginter said she agreed with Murray about some of these issues. To her it was clear that the community itself is divided on this subject and the division within the board reflect this fact. Nonetheless, she said, the board needs to move forward.

Visibly affected by Murray's remarks, Senecal made a statement taking responsibility for getting involved with the Bell Building. "I would like to continue down this road because of the cost savings involved," he said. "Not sharing information is unfortunate," he added. "There is an option of leasing the building after Feb. 1 when Victor Drouin moves his business out of town," he said.

Drouin himself addressed many of the issues raised, such as the roof, which was built to last 40 years and has been in place for 12, and hazardous waste (contamination was removed in 2000 and the building has been off the watch list for a while. He pointed out that all fitting in the building had been installed in the last 8-10 years and the building itself was designed to take heavy shoe machinery.

After further discussion and criticism of the proposal from the audience, Senecal called for a vote. The final vote was 3-2 against adding the proposal to the warrant, with Ginter and Webster voting in favor and Senecal voting with Murray and Silk against.

Other warrant articles

The board held public hearings on the six other warrant articles that are to be bonded. Webster expressed her concern about bonding articles for less than $250,000, saying she felt they should be paid outright to save the expense of issuing bonds as well as the interest payments.

Senecal responded that the Municipal Bond Bank, which the town uses, packages bonds together at low cost.

Silk said she for one did not want to jeopardize the town's general fund budget by including projects in it that voters might not want. Putting them out as separate articles allows voters to consider each proposal separately.

The board readily approved four of the bonded articles: one for $600,000 for Phase 2 Center Street drainage improvements (see separate story on Public Works Director Dave Ford's Center Street adjustments); another for $600,000 for replacing water main and "appurtenances" on Glendon, Lehner and nearby streets; one for $200,000 for reconstruct and resurfacing the Foss Field basketball and tennis courts and replacing the fencing; and one for $175,000 for streambank stabilization improvements on the Smith River downstream of the Crescent Lake dam.

Discussion of Article G-1, which calls for ADA-compliant entrances and bathrooms at the Pop Whalen Arena, provoked some disagreement. Webster raised the question about not bonding it. Senecal pointed out that the $115,546 proposed would wipe out the arena's Enterprise Fund reserve. The board voted 3-2 to put it on the ballot, with Senecal joining Murray and Silk in the affirmative.

When the board got to Article G-2, which calls for $134,454 for constructing ADA-compliant entrances and bathrooms for the Albee Beach and Carry Beach bathhouses, it was disclosed that the budget committee had voted 7-0 with one abstention not to recommend it. Bailey, a member of the budget committee, explained that the committee felt that the use of handicapped portapotties would defer the cost to future years and, in any case, did not want the cost bonded. Senecal pointed out that the bathhouses were not cited as ADA violations by the Department of Justice. There was a question of whether there was money in the Parks and Recreation budget for portapotties. Town Planner Rob Houseman said there was.

Selectmen approved a petitioned warrant article for $10,000 requested by the Wolfeboro 250th Committee to fund partially the program booklet and events to be held celebrating the 250th anniversary of the naming of the town for General James Wolfe, two new articles reaffirming the town's blind and solar exemptions, and a modification of the scope of two public works articles.

The board also voted unanimously to approve adding $7,500 to the budget for the new noontime senior meals program started this year at the First Congregational Church and now proposed to be moved to All Saints Church and expanded to three days a week (the Budget Committee also approved this addition the following Monday, Jan. 11).

A final review of warrant articles by selectmen will be done at a special meeting on Jan. 13, after the press time for this issue. A report on that review will follow next week.

Littleton Chmber
Martin Lord & Osman
Varney Smith
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