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Town re-examines building options in aftermath of vote

Officials, employees look at multiple reasons for failure of voters to approve $950,000 bond for new town offices

NEWFANE—After months of Selectboard meetings and multiple detailed public hearings — and in spite of the water dripping through the roof on board member Mike Fitzpatrick’s head last year — town officials and employees are back to evaluating their options for addressing the drafty, deteriorating town offices.

In a 286–226 vote on Aug. 9, voters rejected an article that would have authorized the town to borrow up to $950,000 for a new building. The balance of the $975,000 building would have been paid with town reserve funds.

Now that the voters have spoken, the question remains: What should the Selectboard do about the town offices?

In an email to The Commons, Administrative Assistant Shannon Meckle said “a few” voters have approached her about a possible recount on the bond vote.

At the Aug. 15 Selectboard meeting, Meckle told the board there is a 30-day deadline for petitioning for a new vote.

“If a new building is not feasible, I hope that some other solution is,” Meckle said. “My only advice [for Newfane voters] would be to stop in, take a tour, sit and talk with the people in the building. Getting the correct information to the voters is crucial.”

Building Committee gauges opposition

During the discussion at the Aug. 15 board meeting, board member Gary Delius listed what he termed the five most common reasons townspeople gave for voting against Article I.

Delius listed as those reasons concerns with the cost, confusion about the process, distrust with government, perceived bias from the Selectboard, and emotional connection to the building.

“It sounds like we’re asking for a lot of money,” Delius, who serves on the Building Committee and spoke only as a member of that committee, told The Commons.

He said that many voters fail to understand bond laws, which say a town can ask for money only once during the bonding process.

“We can’t ask again once we get a bond,” Delius said, so “we have to have those pencils very sharp” the first time and ask for enough money to cover the project plus a cushion for unexpected expenses.

The town’s credit limit is another reason some voters might have balked at a project estimated to cost just under $1 million, Delius told The Commons, noting the Selectboard’s task is to identify if borrowing so much is feasible for the town right now.

“We have other long projects that are bonded,” he said. “Do we have immediate space to borrow in the event of an emergency, like another [Tropical Storm] Irene?”

Lawley, who also serves as the town’s roads foreman, expressed those same concerns at previous Selectboard meetings and at the second public informational hearing.

Meckle addressed those concerns at the Aug. 15 meeting with information she learned from a municipal lending official at People’s United Bank. In this official’s opinion, she said, Newfane “does not have excessive borrowing,” and even a $1 million bond won’t interfere with future loans.

Plus, she said she was advised that a town offices bond wouldn’t affect the town’s debt ceiling in the event of an emergency. Should that occur, the state and federal governments will guarantee any disaster-related loans, she added.

Meckle said she will get those statements in writing and confer with the town’s bond attorney.

Another reason Delius told The Commons he believes the bond vote failed is because town officials were unable to give voters better figures on the cost of the building.

But “it’s a Catch-22,” he said, because no numbers can exist until the town can borrow money to pay someone to design a building and estimate the costs.

Confusion also likely contributed to the article’s failure, Delius said.

The wording of the article, and that two articles appeared on the ballot, might have detracted from the clarity of the issue, he said, leading some voters to incorrectly believe they were voting for either Article I or Article II.

“But, the bond attorney was clear: you have to do it this way,” Delius said. “We tried to be as clear as we could be, but it wasn’t clear enough. The ambiguity won’t be there next time.”

Emotional response

Delius acknowledged the town offices bond vote triggered strong emotional reactions in some voters. Those nostalgic for the building’s earlier uses as an Oddfellows Hall and a public school were reluctant to turn it over to WW Building Supply and take it out of public use.

At the Aug. 15 board meeting, Meckle said she heard many voters say they didn’t have enough information.

“We answered those questions the best we could,” Hatcher said. “We had three hearings.”

In an email to The Commons, Cristelli recounted a conversation she had with a resident who was unable to attend the elections.

“When she asked about the bond, I said that it failed. ‘Oh, good,’ she said.

“I replied, ‘Oh, so it’s good [we] have to work in an environment where there is mold, where your land record books are growing mold, where there is no privacy, and constant noise?’

“This voter gasped out a reply, ‘Oh, I didn’t know,’” Cristelli said.

“To me, the lack of facts kept the bond from passing. Some of the biggest opponents of the bond never attended an informational meeting, or the hearing, or stopped in the office to look at the facts,” Cristelli said.

As a town employee who spends about 40 hours every week, year-round, in the building, Meckle had a few things to say about her workplace.

In an email to The Commons, she said, “I wish the vault were adequate for not only space, but the protection of historic documents. I wish there were space to hold a public meeting. I wish there were the ability to shut the door and hold a private conversation or make a phone call. I wish the building were a healthier place to work.

“I wish the article had passed, but I’m not discouraged, because there are other solutions to explore. I don’t believe that the town office will remain as it is. People are aware now, and that’s a great first step.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #371 (Wednesday, August 24, 2016). This story appeared on page A5.

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