November 07, 2018BRISTOL — Voters attending a special town meeting on Nov. 1 decided the time was right to seize an opportunity to purchase and renovate a downtown building to serve as a new town hall.
The 164-65 decision exceeded by eight votes the two-thirds majority necessary to pass the $899,637 warrant article, but the discussion leading up to the vote made it appear the split would be much closer.
Opponents of the plan spoke of the burden it would place on those living on low or fixed incomes and complained that it would not address all of the problems identified — notably the inadequate facilities at the police station.
Proponents pointed out that voters have rejected previous proposals that would have addressed those inadequacies because incorporating them into a building and renovation plan pushed the cost into the millions. The needs of the police station can be addressed in future years, they said.
Currently, the town offices and police department share space in the Bristol Municipal Building, built in the 1960s and renovated in 1990. Several attempts have been made since then to address overcrowding and bring the police department up to recommended standards.
In 2007, voters rejected a $2.4 million proposal to renovate the Old Town Hall — a plan that included elevating the building to create a basement area and purchasing property behind the building for additional parking — while turning the Municipal Building into a police station, with the appropriate upgrades.
Two and a half years ago, voters rejected a $52,000 proposal to do an operational study of the police department and develop architectural drawings to expand the town offices and police department. The article was amended to form a space needs committee to look into the town's needs for the next 25 years and to propose a solution.
At this year's March Town Meeting, based on the space needs committee report and recommendations, selectmen proposed a $2,650,000 solution that would involve building a new town hall and renovating the current building for the police department. Selectmen moved to table that article, however, after learning that LRGHealthcare had decided to shut down the Newfound Family Practice office, asking instead for time to look into the possibility of purchasing the building.
Voters agreed to wait and also voted to reduce the budget and not put away as much money in capital reserve funds in anticipation of the possibility that the town would be able to buy the building later in the year.
The special town meeting on Nov. 1 gave voters the opportunity to decide whether the purchase the building at the negotiated price of $335,800 and make $563,837 worth of renovations and related expenditures, for a total appropriation of $899,637. Selectmen proposed applying $250,000 from the town's unexpended fund balance and borrowing $649,637.
The interest generated through public tours and letters to local newspapers brought a standing-room-only crowd to the Old Town Hall for the discussion. With 219 voters casting ballots, the attendance exceeded the regular March Town Meeting, when 165 people cast ballots.
Moderator Edward "Ned" Gordon opened the meeting but, because he had served as chair of the space needs committee and wanted to speak in favor of the article, he appointed his daughter, Atty. Dorcas Gordon, to conduct the meeting.
"This is not an Ivanka arrangement," she assured the voters as she took over.
Rick Alpers, chair of the Bristol Board of Selectmen, praised the high turnout "for what I feel is an important decision on an issue that goes back 25 years."
Alpers said it is in the town's best interest to not only purchase the downtown property but to "do as much as possible now" to renovate the building so that, when the staff moves in, they will not be faced with the disruption of future renovations.
"I truly believe this is the right thing to do," he said.
Many people who spoke said they supported the purchase, but questioned the extent of the renovations. Others questioned the layout and the need for a large meeting room. Some argued the building was simply too old (30 years) and too large to properly serve the town.
Some objected to the article because neither the selectmen nor the architect and engineering firm could say how much would be saved by making specific changes to the plan. The work has not yet gone out to bid and cost estimates are general at this time.
The fact that the purchase would take another property off the tax rolls also riled some voters, who pointed out that the town now owns the former Millstream restaurant property, the Smith lot next to the Bristol Municipal Building, and the former tannery property, among others. Alpers confirmed that the professional building had generated about $12,000 per year in tax revenue from LRGHealthcare.
An advantage of the purchase, in addition to having a central location for the town offices and an easy-access meeting room that can accommodate elections, is the building's proximity to the Old Town Hall on Summer Street. While the Old Town Hall has been recently renovated for public functions, some residents find it difficult to climb the sidewalk leading to it. Those who do use it often use the professional building parking lot and, if the town owns it, people will continue to have a place to place to park when going to either building. They might lose that access if someone else purchased the property.
Alpers said there also is a possibility of designating spaces there to serve downtown tenants who have no place to put their cars during the winter parking ban.
Resident Lloyd Belvin declared, "I'm the cheapest guy in town, but I think we should buy the building."
However, he said, the town should put off the renovations until the March Town Meeting, when voters know how much the school budget will be.
John Sellers said the town could build a more attractive building at less expense, and argued that the excess space in the building would result in the town hiring additional employees to fill it.
Ned Gordon said the town has found that it cannot build a new building for less money.
Paul Simard challenged the space needs committee's findings, saying the needs have changed in the last two years, and he urged the town to start over with a new space needs study.
Former selectman Burt Williams said he had come to the meeting prepared to offer an amendment that would reduce the figure by $50,000, but after hearing the discussion, he supported the article as written.
Ned Gordon said after the meeting, "I thought the amount [for renovations] was pretty rich, and have some questions about the design, but it would be a terrible shame to lose that building. If it had to be all or nothing, it's better to be all than nothing."