Bradford voters reject $1.8 million for town hall restoration
Bradford residents overflowed from the gymnasium into the hallways as people packed into the Kearsarge Regional Elementary School-Bradford on Thursday night, April 10, 2013, to vote on whether to renovate the Bradford town hall for roughly $1.8 million.
(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)
Bradford residents vote down an amendment that was introduced while discussing the larger issue of whether to renovate the Bradford town hall for roughly $1.8 million. Residents packed into the Kearsarge Regional Elementary School-Bradford on Thursday night, April 10, 2013, for the vote.
(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)
The restoration of Bradford Town Hall, closed for the past 1½ years after decades of meetings and music, was not worth the $1.8 million officials had asked for, voters decided last night, ending a volatile debate that had lasted since the 2012 town meeting.
The results of the closed-ballot vote, created after a motion to reconsider passed at the 11th hour during last month’s town meeting, was 228 in favor, 224 against. A two-thirds majority, or 301 votes, was needed for passage, and residents had two hours to cast their votes after discussing the article for an hour and 45 minutes.
Eileen Kelly, chairwoman of the restoration committee, said the 452 votes marked the largest voter turnout anyone in town government could remember.
The anticipated crowd forced town officials to set up seating, a wide-screen TV and a loudspeaker in the library. The space, it turned out, was needed, as was the lobby that separates the library from the gym, where the meeting was held.
Non-registered voters were asked to leave the gym so registered voters could find seats.
The issue, according to an official, caused awkward feelings among residents as they went about their business, while some residents said their lives had never been disrupted by the differences of opinion.
The issue centered on a building originally built in 1797 before it was moved to its present location, on West Main Street, in 1863.
Through the 20th century, the building housed town meetings and town offices, while also staging concerts and dances in the upstairs auditorium.
Mold, poor plumbing, lack of handicap accessibility and apathy in general led to its closing in November 2011, setting up a debate that polarized some sections of town.
The vision began at last year’s town meeting, when voters chose to spend $13,000 for architectural studies. The plan called for a new foundation to support the building, offices for town administrators and a 60-seat meeting room on the first floor, and a revamped auditorium upstairs with seating for 220 people and room for 300 overall.
Officials from the budget committee, planning board and board of selectmen were unanimously in favor of the restoration.
But at last month’s town meeting, after the two-thirds majority needed to secure the bond was not reached, a motion to reconsider passed late in the evening.
Some in town questioned the timing of the motion, saying that many of the residents who voted against the measure had already left, leaving enough supporters to change the initial decision from four hours earlier.
That was just one point of contention. Some wondered about a tax increase at a time when homeowners who live paycheck to paycheck were having trouble paying their mortgages. Foreclosures, in fact, reached 22 last year, with three more thus far in 2013, according to town records.
“I hear people saying taxes won’t go up,” a man said during the debate. “That’s wrong; they will go up. A lot of people are in my situation, retired with a fixed income.”
“Investing $1.7 million into this is not fiscally responsible,” added resident Don Johnson. “That’s an awful lot of money for that property. How many people are struggling to pay their taxes now? That’s a hell of a burden.”
Supporters, however, argued that property values would increase with the addition of a new town hall, while leaving the building vacant and allowing it to deteriorate would reduce values.
Also, the tax hike, at 42 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, was reasonable and in fact would serve as an investment, residents said, adding that the time to rebuild is now, with low financing and interest rates.
“This place in time, we can either love it or lose it,” said a man supporting the project. “We need to make the town attractive and keep it attractive. This would give the town a heartbeat.”
Added Walter Royal, “Those of you who think we shouldn’t resurrect our town hall because the tax rate will go up don’t understand that if we don’t maintain our appearance, the tax base will go down. People will leave or never move in and there will be fewer and fewer taxpayers to pay the same taxes.”
Further, longtime residents remembered when the town hall served as a central meeting place, where local business mixed with the arts and entertainment.
“Older folks in this town know the value of a town hall,” a woman said. “It’s a place that draws a community together,” the woman said.
She then proceeded to list residents whose lives had changed thanks to the old town hall. One was George Cilley, who met his wife, Marge, during dance lessons in the ballroom in 1947.
In the end, though, nostalgia wasn’t enough to justify a bond worth this kind of money.
Said one man, “Let’s see the town get together, instead of pulling apart, and push to raise the money ourselves.”
(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @RayDuckler.)