A new twist on how Wellesley might pay for Town Hall interior renovations

The assumption has been that we were headed for a Dec. 6 special election in which residents would decide on a debt exclusion that would pay for badly needed renovations to Wellesley Town Hall’s interior and yet again raise taxes.

But Wellesley Executive Director Meghan Jop and Chief Financial Officer Sheryl Strother told the Select Board and then the Advisory Committee this past week that the funds needed to cover the project could possibly come from inside the levy—those generated from regular property taxes and other town revenue. This would be an alternative to approving additional outside borrowing as has been used in recent years to fund middle school renovations and to fund new school building construction at Hardy and Hunnewell.

In last year’s town-wide financial plan, there was an estimate of a $19M debt exclusion that would have maxed out with a median tax bill increase of $100 in fiscal year 2025.

“In looking at that in conjunction with a number of other items that have come up this year, including the water rates, the potential for an enterprise stormwater fund, and just looking at various tax increases, Sheryl… came to me and said I’m looking at the numbers and I think we might be able to get it inside the levy,” Jop said. “I was really skeptical. I said, ‘Really?'”

Strother said: “We are been blessed with a large amount of free cash that could be devoted…free cash is obviously achieved over a long period of time, it could be devoted to a capital project that will last a long period of time.”

A combination of pandemic-related grants, less municipal hiring (and the healthcare and other costs associated with that), and less spending on items because they aren’t available due to supply chain issues have left the town with a much higher than usual amount of free cash/reserves—a portion of which (say $13M) could go a long way toward funding the Town Hall project.  The town currently has about $8M more in its reserves than its policy recommends.

A renovation of Town Hall’s exterior finished in 2020, and an article about construction of the interior renovations is on the warrant for Special Town Meeting this October.

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Construction would be slated to start next year and the estimate for completion is in the fall of 2024. The overall construction cost would be nearly $23 million when temporary relocation and other expenses are mixed in. That’s on top of the $1.85M Town Meeting approved last year for design work.

Permanent Building Committee Town Hall

The Select Board on Aug. 30 received both an update on the Town Hall project construction plans and on financing options.

The Wellesley Facilities Management Department’s Glenn Remick gave an overview of the project, which is designed to acknowledge the historical significance of the Town Hall building, which was erected in the 188os and last spruced up inside in 1985 (Remick gives a fuller presentation at the Aug. 25 Permanent Building Committee meeting, about 5 minutes into the Wellesley Public Media recording). The renovation is designed to update mechanical and other aging systems, make the inside of the building more usable and attractive to the public and employees, embrace sustainability, and adhere to Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

 

Town Hall interior
Town Hall interior plans, as presented at Select Board meeting

 

The interior redesign will also impact the exterior: the current entrance that faces Washington Street will be shut off, the historic bell will be moved in front of it, and a new entrance will be opened to the right of that. The building is the result of a former library and a town hall being mashed together.

Plans to renovate have been some 10 years in the making, with one past idea being to add an annex to the building. That plan was scrapped as the pandemic emerged, and the town approved design funds last year to address a fresh rethinking of the interior design that would allow more departments to use the main building (the land use departments were recently relocated to office space on Rte. 9). You may recall that discussion over electrification of the building made for some Town Meeting drama last year.

A good chunk of the project could be paid for from free cash, and the rest could be cobbled together from other means ,such as by working with the town’s Permanent Building Committee to identify unused monies ($1.4M) from past projects that could be redeployed at Town Meeting. Other past Town Meeting authorizations ($3M-plus) have also been identified that could be redirected to the Town Hall project if Special Town Meeting approves.

Even with such a plan, Jop says her team is confident it can maintain support for other projects prioritized in the town’s 5-year financial plan without borrowing outside the levy.

While this might all sound like a slam dunk—use the cash on hand to pay for the Town Hall project instead of raising taxes again—not all Select Board members were immediately sold on this approach.

Select Board member Ann-Mara Lanza raised the question of opportunity costs, and what else the money could be spent on, such as say, renovations at Morses Pond. She asked whether not going to a debt exclusion for Town Hall could push other smaller projects into that territory.

Strother said no other projects on the list (various HVAC updates, some DPW building projects, etc.) are planned for outside the levy borrowing, but as costs rise, it’s hard to say whether Town Meeting will approve these projects or on what schedule. “We’re not planning for a debt exclusion at this time for those projects… We will always try to finance inside the levy if we can afford it,” she said.

Select Board member Beth Sullivan Woods says investing in Town Hall is a good use of funds, but she thinks voters should have a say in how such a large amount of their tax dollars is being spent. “I am I guess not comfortable not asking the voter to support a project of this magnitude that is something we should all be proud of for generations to come,” she said. Sullivan Woods added that she’s not totally comfortable that the town will have enough of a cushion left to fund other projects and costs already on Wellesley’s radar or that could arise.

Colette Aufranc said she likes the possibility of using free cash to fund much of the Town Hall project, and noted that such a strategy has been used in the past on library and Warren Recreation Center projects. “It’s really hard right now to go out and ask people for more taxes when we have these large reserves,” she said. “If we have to go out and ask people to borrow money, I’d like to be able to space that a little bit.”

Tom Ulfelder said residents, through Town Meeting reps (with Advisory’s guidance), have had the opportunity to mull the Town Hall project and judge its value. Debt exclusion votes by the public in the past have not drawn a high percentage of eligible voters, either, he said.

“We could instead give the voters a significant tax break after what they’ve had happen to their bill because of the Hardy and Hunnewell projects, the increase in the water bill,” Ulfelder said. “The taxpayers, the residents of Wellesley deserve a break. And we have the capacity financially to provide that break and still provide financing for the various projects that we need to…”

A couple of board members asked for a bit more time to consider the issue, and a vote has been slated for the Select Board’s Sept. 12 meeting.