WEST NEWBURY — A proposed $1.5 million restoration of the historic Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Building on Main Street received the backing of selectmen, but the Finance Committee is opposed.
During a review Tuesday of the warrant for the Special Town Meeting on Nov. 4, selectmen unanimously agreed to bring the proposal to voters next month. Appearing under Article 10, the plan calls for using $250,000 in Community Preservation Act money for the upgrade with the balance covered through borrowing.
The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Building was built in 1900 as a Civil War memorial. The funding would cover interior and exterior restoration; a new septic system, walkways and signs; hazardous materials remediation; replacement of electrical, plumbing, HVAC and fire alarm systems; and other costs.
With a 20-year bond and 2.5% interest rate, the annual payment would be about $80,000.
The amount the town typically brings in annually from the local tax surcharge is about $325,000, which means the Community Preservation Act surcharge percentage could be lowered if voters decide to do so without it affecting the town’s ability to meet this obligation, Town Manager Angus Jennings said.
This amount does not include the state match, which for borrowing purposes can’t be considered because the town has no control over how much the match would be or whether the program continues.
But the Finance Committee rejected the plan in a 6-1 vote, citing numerous concerns. Among them were a lack of a defined use for the building, inadequate parking, future maintenance and insurance costs, and the commitment of future CPA money the town has yet to receive, member Nathan Kelly said.
Colleague Forbes Durey noted other significant projects that might qualify for the funding if it were available, such as continued renovations to Page Elementary School and a town water improvement project on land at Dole Place.
Durey struggled with committing taxpayers to a 20-year obligation, contending it could limit the town’s ability to act if, for example, a major tract of land became available to buy in 10 years.
“We’re spending future dollars,” he said.
Citing current low interest rates, selectmen Chairman David Archibald said, “The longer we wait, the more expensive it is.
If we’re going to borrow money, this might be the primo time.”
Member Brad Beaudoin felt the timing of the request was off. He suggested delaying the vote until the annual meeting next spring when more voters turn out.
But Selectman Rick Parker stressed that if the project is going to happen, it’s important to get the financing in place now.
CPA money can be used prior to the bonding to start creating the documents needed to go out to bid next spring.
The goal is to avoid submitting the aging building to another New England winter in 2020 given its current vulnerable state, Parker said.
“If there was ever a structure in town in critical duress because of age, this is such a building,” said Dick Cushing, a veteran and proponent of the restoration project. He believes the age and condition of the building should take priority over the concerns raised by the Finance Committee.
Resident John McGrath, a veteran, stressed that the building is meant to be a memorial, so there isn’t a need to lock in a specific use prior to giving it the care it needs and deserves.
“I think that will happen organically,” he said, adding that it might be useful for organizations such as the Riding and Driving Club, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the Council on Aging, and other groups and residents looking to hold small-scale events.
Jim Sperelakis — the only Finance Committee member to vote in favor — said restoration of the “most iconic building in town” was exactly the type of project for which CPA money is intended.
He called on voters to respect the efforts of those who built it more than 100 years ago and preserve the structure for future generations.
Ann O’Sullivan, an advocate for the project, said she believed voters will take a more global view of the benefits the restoration brings to the community than just the more narrow financial implications of a project that the committee considers.
“Few opportunities exist in most towns to distinguish themselves quite like this building affords us,” O’Sullivan said.
“I’m for it,” Selectman Glenn Kemper said. “We owe it the town to bring it to a vote and have a good debate about it.”
The Special Town Meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the Town Annex, 379 Main St.