Marion's selectmen are stifling voters' right to choose

Mar 22, 2018

To the Editor:

Towards the end of the March 20 Marion Board of Selectmen meeting, selectmen Jody Dickerson and Norm Hills instructed Town Administrator Paul Dawson to remove the article related to a new town building at the VFW site from the Town Meeting warrant. In doing so, Mr. Hills and Mr. Dickerson took the decision away from the voters, and obviously intend to force an up or down vote on renovating the Town House at Spring meeting.

They don’t understand that a decision regarding the location of the Town’s administrative offices is no theirs to make. It should be decided by the voters in a referendum.

To be very clear, both alternatives preserve the structure of the historic Town House building. The renovation option calls for stripping it down to bare studs, so only a shell will remain. The VFW option proposes selling the Town House to a developer with a historic deed restriction requiring him to preserve the shell of the Town House building. Among other possibilities, the building could be turned into condos, apartments, or assisted living, all needed in Marion.

Converting the Town House to private use would generate incremental tax revenue, which Alan Minard has calculated, is the equivalent to saving $1 million on the VFW option.

The real debate is over the location of the Town’s offices. How important is it to voters to have the town’s administrative functions located on Spring Street? Even with the reduced post-renovation footprint, the building is oversize for 18 full time employees. Most of us go there only once a year for a dump sticker. Even people, who live in the village, tend to drive, not walk there.

The renovation will require by law the installation of an expensive elevator for the three floors. Elevators require expensive monthly inspections and maintenance, but no one is telling voters about that ongoing cost.

There are two groups of citizens at work here. One is the Town House Building Committee and a small group of fervent supporters. This group believes they know what is best for the Town and, to them, what most voters think or want doesn’t seem to matter. They are determined to keep the town's administrative functions on Spring Street, regardless of the cost.

This is the same group that spent $400,000 (and possibly as much as $600,000) on architectural fees for renovating the Town House, without ever asking the voters if they want to renovate it. In the process, they have squeezed down the cost from an initial estimate of over $12 million to the current estimate of $7.9 million.

$7.9 million now is a true low-ball number. It doesn’t include an estimated interest cost of $3.6 million on the related debt (which will be higher without the $800,000 of CPA funds they presume they will get).

They don’t include the cost of relocating the Town’s administrative offices for at least 18 months. Word is that they found out renting trailers would cost $500,000, so they are now scrambling to come up with cheaper alternatives.

Based on the $7.9 million estimate, those who support the renovation need to realize it is not an all-inclusive number. Once the project starts, the Town will be coming to voters to approve additional expenditures.

Including the Town House renovation, the capital budget for FY2019 is $15.3 million. The 1,600 homes connected to the sewer system will be hardest by the debt issuance. Hold on to your pocket book!

The other group started as a loosely affiliated group of concerned citizens, questioning the high initial $12 million cost number for the renovation project for small town such as Marion. Then the VFW site was given to the Town and it proposed evaluating the idea of building a new Town administrative facility there as a lower cost alternative.

From day one, this group took the view that it should be up to the voters to decide between the renovation and new building options. This group morphed into the Town House Building Sub-Committee. It saw its primary responsibility as providing the voters enough information on a new building at the VFW site to enable them to make an informed decision between the two.

To date, only $35,000 was spent on architectural fees, which produced a rendering of a possible building design. The design is a starting point and clearly needs work and the input of citizens.

The public needs to understand that efforts were made to stymie the work of this group at every turn. They had to fight and scrap to obtain the $35,000 funding and to hire an independent architect to produce a preliminary design for a new building at the VFW site for voters.

In another attempt to manipulate voters, the use of over $800,000 of CPA (Community Preservation Act) funds was slipped into the Article in the warrant for renovating the Town House. Any one voting to approve the Town House renovation thus is voting to approve the use of over $800,000 of CPA funds.

This is wrong. There needs to be an open hearing of the Community Preservation Committee to discuss the expenditure of such a large dollar amount of CPA funds. Citizens should be aware that there are other permitted uses for CPA funds including building bike and walking trials. Voters might agree to locate the Town’s administrative functions at the VFW site, so CPA funds are made available to build badly needed bike and walking trails in the Town.

CPA funds aside, all factors considered, building at the VFW site will save the Town at least $3 million in comparison with the Town House renovation option. I wonder, if asked, how many of the Town House's ardent renovation supporters would write personal checks to cover this $3 million cost differential.

I would be happy to sit down with Mr. Hills and go through the numbers line by line. At the March 20 meeting, he attempted to minimize the savings. In doing so, he conveniently counted only those factors that reduce the cost of renovating the Town House and increase the cost of building at the VFW site, not exactly a fair and balanced approach.

Whether you, as a voter, are for the Town renovation project or not, you should be concerned when two Selectmen decide what voters think doesn’t matter. Maybe they took the Article for approval of the VFW option out of the warrant because they believed voters might approve it?


John P. Waterman

Marion, Massachusetts