We didn’t see this one coming. Town Meeting members spent more than 2 hours on Monday debating an article seeking approval for $1.85M to pay for architectural and engineering designs to repair and renovate the insides of the 137-year-old Town Hall building.
According to former Wellesley Select Board Chair Marjorie Freiman, who presented Article 17, Motion 1, this would mark the building’s first major interior fix-up since 1985, and would make Town Hall safer to work in and more accessible to all. Freiman described Town Hall as being among the last town buildings to get “long-deferred maintenance work.” An exterior renovation finished last year.
Town Meeting members who spoke up agreed that Town Hall needs the work. Jim Roberti, who said he has literally attended hundreds of meetings at the building, ticked off numerous reasons renovation is needed, from peeling paint to the notorious sewer line break in the basement.
The discussion started off simply enough, with questions about how historical artifacts, including the big bell out front, would be dealt with.
Things got interesting when Town Meeting member Pete Jones asked about plans for all heating and cooling in the building to be electrified, and how much that might cost vs. using natural gas.
Town Facilities Director Joe McDonough pointed out that the town’s current sustainable building guidelines for big projects like this and the two new elementary schools call for all-electric infrastructure. “I don’t have the exact numbers in front of me but I can tell you that at this point anecdotally it is more expensive to heat a building with electricity…probably at this point I would say in the order of twice as expensive as natural gas,” he said, adding that the expectation is that heating systems will become more efficient and electricity usage will drop. (Later, McDonough quipped “that’s the last time I’ll make that mistake of estimating utilities…”).
Town Meeting members then proceeded to swap anecdotes about how cheap or expensive electric heating and cooling is, and how easy or difficult it is to manage. Some claimed it’s the right environmental choice, while others questioned its true greenness.
Many of the town’s leading sustainability voices weighed in over the course of the discussion, backing up McDonough’s point about expected savings over the long run, in part due to the Municipal Light Plant’s well-known low rates, and with the possibility of carbon taxes or other developments making natural gas a less attractive choice in the long run. They also said electrical systems, including newfangled heat pumps, are the best environmental option for residents and their offspring at a time when the town is aggressively pursuing net-zero goals through its emerging Climate Action Plan.
“I’m am unwilling to tell my children and my grandchildren that I decided to destroy the environment that they are going to live in because I wanted to save a couple of dollars on my tax bill,” said Town Meeting member Paul Cramer.
A motion to amend the original motion was submitted by Town Meeting member Royall Switzler to ensure that the Permanent Building Committee would include a study of comparative costs between electric and natural gas heating systems. Switzler pointed out that electrifying an old and poorly insulated building like Town Hall isn’t the same as electrifying a new school or senior center.
The Advisory Committee voted in favor of the motion, but the amendment was narrowly defeated by a vote of 94 in favor, 110 opposed, 6 abstaining.
Soon after, the main motion easily passed.
For more Town Meeting results, here’s the scorecard. Town Meeting wrapped up on May 5.
(Video courtesy of Wellesley Media)