Selectmen ask capital committee not to delay Hildreth House Phase 2 study

The knowledge that taxpayers will soon be asked to approve one of the most expensive building projects in the town’s history hangs over fiscal 2019 capital planning like the threat of bad weather.

Of the 16 projects submitted to the Capital Planning and Investment Committee by town departments this year for fiscal 2019 funding, the committee voted this week to recommend 11 that total $571,046, an unusually low number relative to past years. The committee voted to reject or postpone the remaining five projects (see table below). But when Co-chairs SusanMary Redinger and John Seely presented their committee’s list to the selectmen Tuesday night, the board pushed back, asking that a $40,000 review of plans to expand Hildreth House be returned to the list and suggesting that the amount allocated to study the needs of the Fire Department may need to be increased (see article).

In its deliberations over the past two months, the committee had concluded that spending money now to review plans for an expansion of Hildreth House, so-called Phase 2, was premature, given that construction would not begin until fiscal 2021 at the earliest, three years from now. Moreover, that project must be approved by Town Meeting. Committee members said that delaying the plan for a year would provide the Council on Aging with more time to sharpen the parameters and cost estimates of the study.

Chairwoman Lucy Wallace of the selectmen argued, however, that getting from a conceptual design to construction bids always took longer than expected and it would be best to begin the study next year. The study is needed, Wallace said, because the original Phase 2 study had assumed a smaller senior population. She said that completion of Phase 1 had increased demand for activities at the senior center. “There are waiting lists for meals,” she said, and the absence of office space requires medical consultations, such as regular visits from a podiatrist, to be held in the Hildreth House parlor, which she said is “demeaning.” Delaying the development of new schematic plans could ultimately delay the project itself, she argued.

Study timing

Selectwoman Alice von Loesecke, who is the board’s CPIC representative, defended the study delay. She said she “totally” supports plans for Phase 2 to begin in fiscal 2021, but found the Council on Aging’s request to be “nebulous” and in need of better focus. She said past requests for studies of Hildreth House Phase 1 and the restoration of the old library had been “tight” and the results “stellar.” Selectman Ken Swanton agreed that the plan could wait a year and worried that if the building of a new elementary school were approved, the town would have little appetite for expanding Hildreth House anytime soon, making any study done now a wasted effort.

Selectwoman Kara Minar asked whether Swanton was saying that if the elementary school project is approved by the town “there will be no Phase 2 Hildreth project.” If the town approves the elementary school and taxes rise as much as forecast, said Swanton, he didn’t see how the town would approve another big project anytime soon.

“It’s unfortunate. You’re looking to the seniors to underwrite a big project, and you’ve just pushed them off a year,” said Wallace.

“We haven’t pushed off [Phase 2 construction]; we’ve pushed off the study,” responded Redinger. If the committee were to be given “a different direction,” she said, CPIC could restore funding for the study to its list of recommended projects. After further discussion, the selectmen voted 3–2 to do just that, with von Loesecke and Swanton voting against.

Unanimous vote

With the vote to restore the Hildreth House study, the recommended list of fiscal 2019 capital projects now includes a dozen items whose total cost is an estimated $611,046. Wallace asked if the selectmen needed to vote on it. Under the process proposed by the Charter Commission, answered Swanton, “we’re responsible for everything.” With no further debate, the selectmen voted unanimously to support the revised list.

The work of the capital committee, however, is not quite done. Members are still waiting to hear further details on the scope and estimated cost of a fire station study. And the committee has yet to present its plan to the Finance Committee, which is currently scheduled to take place Dec. 20.

Still to be determined is how the committee proposes to pay for the 12 projects on its list. The School Committee has agreed to use its Devens stipend to pay the $240,000 cost of renovating the one remaining legacy science lab at the Bromfield School. That leaves approximately $371,046 to taxpayers. With Finance Director David Nalchajian reporting a balance of approximately $1.9 million in the Capital Stabilization and Investment Fund, CPIC could recommend the entire amount be paid without adding to town debt. Whether to do so will be decided at a future CPIC meeting.

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