Finance Committee Withholds Endorsement of Project Spending

By IAN FEIN

The West Tisbury finance committee shared some sharp words with members of the town hall building committee last week, before voting not to recommend the extra funds needed to keep the $5.5 million renovation project moving forward.

Finance committee chairman Sharon Estrella told building committee members last Friday she was disappointed that they did not try to revise the plan when they learned of the 50 per cent increase to its cost. After reviewing the more recent numbers last Thursday, the building committee quickly decided to go forward with the existing project, as opposed to revising the overall design.

"With such a shocking number, one of the first things I figured you would have thought about was how you can pare it down," Mrs. Estrella said. "It blows me away that there aren't a number of alternatives."

Building committee members explained that coming up with new alternatives would mean starting over with an entirely new project - which, they said, would lead to further delays and thus cost more money.

"I think we're all upset about it - but the prices have been going up every day," said selectman and building committee member Glenn Hearn. "It's going to kill us even more if we go back to square one," he added.

"It's also killing the taxpayers, and it's going to keep killing the taxpayers. Somewhere along the line you just can't keep going," Mrs. Estrella said. "People talk about taxpayers not being able to afford their property taxes and having to leave the Island. This is why - this is exactly why," she said.

"I feel bad for the taxpayers in town, because they're going to get slammed - and it's sad," Mrs. Estrella added.

Voters will be asked at a Nov. 16 special town meeting to approve another $1.8 million for the renovation project. The request will require two-thirds approval at town meeting, and will also require a majority vote in a special town election held the following day.

The extra money is expected to be a tough sell on town meeting floor, where only a year ago the then-$3.7 million town hall price tag passed with more than 90 per cent of the vote.

During a review of the town meeting warrant at the selectmen's meeting this week, project manager and town hall building committee chairman Ernest Mendenhall asked moderator F. Patrick Gregory how far he would allow discussion on the project to stray. Mr. Mendenhall explained that the $1.8 million request and $5.5 million price tag are tied to specific construction bids and therefore cannot be changed or amended without redesigning the entire project and, in effect, starting over.

"It might be easier to vote down the entire thing than to amend [the number] down," Mr. Mendenhall said.

Finance committee member Peter Costas last week raised a number of objections to an early version of the warrant article. He called it a blank check and said he was offended by it. His comments sparked a short argument with executive secretary Jennifer Rand, who told Mr. Costas that the language in the spending request was the same as the warrant article from the previous year.

"But that was $2 million ago," Mr. Costas said, repeating the phrase three times. "That was $2 million ago - on top of everything else."

Mr. Costas echoed some of Mrs. Estrella's remarks about the town's recent track record of increased spending.

"I don't believe the building committee has been cavalier in their recommendation of this extra money," Mr. Costas said. "I know a lot of sweat and blood and maybe tears have gone into this. But if this was my money for a renovation of my home, I would have to stay with the money I budgeted. You're going to have to make the $3.7 million work."

Seven Gates Farm resident Jonathan Revere asked building committee members last week whether they had compared their project size and costs with other recent renovations on the Island - specifically, the Chilmark town hall renovation completed in June 2004. Mr. Mendenhall said they had not compared their project to Chilmark.

The 5,600 square-foot Chilmark town hall renovation and expansion accommodates 13 regular employees and cost approximately $1.5 million.

The proposed $5.5 million West Tisbury project would expand the town hall to roughly 10,000 square feet and accommodate some 15 regular employees.

Finance committee members said considering the new price tag, a better option might be to build an entirely new town hall on another piece of town-owned land.

First built as a school in 1872, the three-story mansard-roofed building sits in the heart of the rural West Tisbury village, bordered on one side by Music street and on the other side by the Grange Hall.

Selectman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter, who sits on both the finance and building committees, said he still thought the renovation project was the right way to go.

"I think this is a heck of a price tag - even $3.7 million was difficult for me to swallow," Mr. Manter said. "But I think people want to keep it [the town hall] here."

Mr. Manter abstained from the vote not to recommend the additional spending.