The West Tisbury town hall is a problem that just won't go away. Voters at a special town meeting this week will be asked to take the project back to square one, funding the design phase of renovating the 132-year-old town hall, a former school building.
Town moderator Pat Gregory will open the meeting at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 13, at the West Tisbury elementary school gymnasium. Article 14 on the 16-article warrant asks voters to spend $25,000 for architectural and design services to renovate the old building. It seems a simple enough question, but it has been a sticking point for the town now for almost seven years.
West Tisbury voters have been contemplating the future of the old building since 1997, when they first approved an article to spend $10,000 on a feasibility study. Since that time, the town has spent $85,000 pursuing a final design. Last April, at the annual town meeting, voters turned down a $3.8-million renovation project, which included plans to add a building for a meeting room and to greatly expand the town hall's paved parking lot. Critics called the project extravagant. At a subsequent special town meeting in May, voters also shot down an effort to restart the planning process, with a proposal much like the one being placed before them this Tuesday.
Building committee chairman and selectman John G. Early this week said the new expenditure is needed by the committee to move forward with the next phase of the project: finding a new plan acceptable to the voters. Mr. Early said, "We have a seriously dilapidated embarrassment for a public building. I think the selectmen have a moral obligation to the employees of the town to develop a project that will give town hall staff a healthy, decent workplace. They barely have it. We are open and seeking input. Public input is essential."
Selectman Glenn Hearn, who also serves on the building committee, said a portion of the money in the article being put to voters this week will fund the mailing of a questionnaire. "The town needs to come up with a plan. We came up with a questionnaire and we never could send it out because we had no money. We'll add up the responses and see what voters think," he said.
"The finance committee is supporting this article provided the survey is done and provided that the town does what the survey says," Mr. Hearn said.
Many people in town feel the building committee has come to this pass because it didn't reach into the community for ideas in the first place. Meanwhile, backers of the town hall project say voters have passed up opportunities to participate in planning, only to turn up at the ballot box and reject the plans once they're set.
Brent Taylor, tax collector, sees last year's negative vote as having as much to do with public concerns about growth in town as with specifics of the building plan. Over the past two decades, West Tisbury has been the fastest-growing town on the Island. "I think people were stung by the new fire station," Ms. Taylor said, referring to a new municipal facility that many in town feel was inappropriately large. "People feel the [town hall] should be the same as it was," she said.
Ms. Taylor said concerns about the town hall are all wrapped up with concerns that the rural character of West Tisbury is threatened. "I have lived on the other side of the agricultural hall for 33 years, so I know what this is about."
But Ms. Taylor concluded: "Just because you renovate the building doesn't mean you are changing the character of West Tisbury. "You don't let a town treasure fall apart."
Jonathan Revere, a West Tisbury watchdog, is critical of the project and the committee. "I think the voters have spoken," Mr. Revere said, referring to the negative votes of last year. "They [the committee] did not exhaust all the alternative ideas and locations." One option that begs to be investigated, he said, is swapping the town hall for the library. In doing so, Mr. Revere believes, the town would be able to tap state aid for the conversion of the old building into a library.
Mr. Revere said another option is to move the town hall to the Tea Lane Associates building in the business district.
Mr. Early said he is open to all ideas. In defense of his building committee, he said they did their homework and examined the alternatives. "The committee unanimously felt that West Tisbury town center is the preferred center for town government," he said. Mr. Early said at this week's meeting of the selectmen that he plans to amend Article 14 at Tuesday's meeting to make it clear that alternate sites will be considered.
Mr. Early said: "I think at the end of the day, the deciding factor for last year's vote against was cost. There were a lot of legitimate concerns."
If there is agreement anywhere, it is that something needs to be done.
Ernie Mendenhall, building inspector, doesn't have to go far to find building code violations in the present town hall. John Powers, health agent for the board of health, has a similar view: "I enforce state health regulations, minimum standards for human habitation. In some cases the building doesn't meet them."
There are places where there is mold growing on hidden walls. The men's bathroom develops an awful smell in the summer, and employees can't open the windows because people outside waiting for a bus can stare right in. Rest rooms in the building get a lot of use, because they are the only public rest rooms between the airport and Menemsha.
Mr. Mendenhall said: "I go around and enforce the state building code that the town hall doesn't meet." It is more than handicap accessibility, he said - it is public safety. The third floor can't be used by the public because it is too shaky. The third floor ceiling is falling down. The electrical fuse box in the tiny basement is a confusing tangle of wires. The heating system breaks down regularly.
Over the 14 years his wife, Maureen, served as the town executive secretary, Kent Healy, a civil engineer, has made visits to the building to advise employees on the safe and not-so-safe places to put heavy file cabinets. "I looked at the structure and suggested they keep the heavy stuff near the walls," Mr. Healy said of the third floor storage area. "The building is not in bad shape. It hasn't had maintenance and needs help. But it won't fall down."
Mr. Healy is opposed to the $3.8-million town hall project. "It was more than what was needed," he said.
In October of 1998, a local architect came up with ideas that many still like. Ben Moore, who designed the town library and the library addition, developed a plan in 1998 that didn't change the building's footprint, but added significant amounts of space. Mr. Healy worked for Mr. Moore on that project. "I recommended that they construct a basement under the existing building, strengthen all three floors and thereby double the available space," Mr. Healy said. He said Mr. Moore's idea, though not as ambitious as the project put before voters in May, still makes a lot more fiscal sense.
Pamela Thors, administrative assistant to the assessors office, said: "Maybe it is not the big plan that was proposed last year. Maybe it is not the Moore compact plan that was proposed. Maybe it should be something in between."
Because of a prior commitment, Robert Potts won't make it to the town meeting this week. But he said he supported the town vote that rejected the $3.8-million plan in May. "It was too big and expensive and too elaborate. Design something more modest," he said.
Jo-Ann Resendes, principal assessor and a member of the town hall building committee, will have worked for the town 19 years in March. She spends a lot of time in the building. When she first started working at the town hall, she and Ms. Taylor worked on the ground floor, and they were the first to move upstairs when space was needed. She believes the push for a new town hall failed at the annual town meeting for a lot of reasons. Money was the first reason it failed. The price tag, the fact that the war in Iraq had started. The Powerpoint presentation couldn't be seen by most. A lot of negative events coincided. "It was the Perfect Storm when it came to a failure," she said.
She said the building committee did its homework, held three public hearings, and even sent out a mailing prior to the vote, but still failed to get voter confidence. Questions that were posed at the town meeting floor caught the committee unprepared. "There was a mismatch of messages," she said.
Some town hall employees are disheartened about the prospects for ever improving their building, saying privately they think the voters just don't care. Townspeople might agree the building needs work when they come by to pay their taxes, but in the privacy of the ballot booth, they vote no.