Hopkinton won’t replace garage after funding vote falls short
Hopkinton will not replace its destroyed highway garage this winter after a measure to borrow the money in light of tense negotiations with the town’s insurer failed by four votes last night. The results came as a surprise to the selectmen, who had planned for construction to begin Monday.
“None of us thought about Plan B. . . . I just never gave it a thought. Now (the project is) going to have to go into the March annual meeting,” Selectman George Langwasser said after the vote was read.
The $1.3 million bond on the table would have allowed the town to construct a garage to replace one destroyed in a June fire. The selectmen explained to voters that the town has been quarreling with its insurer, the Local Government Center, which has offered to pay about $738,000 for a garage it valued at $1 million before the fire.
With a new, up-to-code garage expected to cost about $1.3 million, the selectmen told voters that the worst case scenario would have left about $562,000 to make up through taxes over 10 years. Without knowing what settlement the two parties may ultimately reach, though, the selectmen said the town’s best option was to raise the full $1.3 million now and pay down the bond once an agreement was reached.
But some voters saw another option: putting the project on hold.
Ultimately, 91 residents voted to do just that, leaving the warrant article four votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed for it to pass. Of the 264 votes cast, 172 were in favor of the project.
“Why is this such an emergency?” resident Bob Koch asked the selectmen as more than an hour of debate continued in the high school auditorium. “The folks that do our roads and everything aren’t going to have use of this building this winter. . . . Why doesn’t the entire town take part in this, giving everybody a chance to scratch their heads and say, ‘Well let’s see, do I really want this?’ Or do we really need to rush this through tonight?”
Resident Mike Charron, too, argued that the project hadn’t been planned out. He questioned why the town needed to bond $1.3 million if it only required about $562,000 to make up the difference between the LGC’s offer and the building’s cost. And he asked the selectmen to provide a detailed breakdown of the item-by-item construction of the building.
As Jim O’Brien, chairman of the board of selectmen, held up a multi-page spreadsheet showing those numbers, Charron said it wasn’t enough.
“I think it’s clear based on the conversation so far that this thing is not even planned out. I mean you don’t even have details. You have them on a spreadsheet,” he said. “I mean, it’s ridiculous to even contemplate voting yes on this based upon what we’ve heard so far. So I mean, I guess how many bids were put out for this project?”
The contractor, who the selectmen hired in an attempt to move forward despite the stalled insurance negotiations, tried to address the concern.
He told voters the project was properly bid, saying he received eight quotes on the drywall work alone. As the ballot box opened, O’Brien said detailed numbers like the ones Charron was requesting are available and were put out for discussion at two budget hearings on the project.
About three people showed up to a hearing held by the selectmen, according to O’Brien. He said no one attended the budget committee’s meeting.
After the votes were tallied, O’Brien said he wasn’t sure why the measure failed but guessed that residents wanted the issue to be more fully debated at the larger March town meeting. He also said that there could have been confusion over the numbers.
“I’m not sure how more clearly we could have articulated it unless we had a settlement with the LGC at this point moving forward,” he said.
“But we don’t. We came to the meeting with what we know and the numbers that we have. And I think we were honest in our presentation.”
Langwasser said he expected people to speak out against the bond. But he hadn’t expected them to sway as many voters as they did. He and O’Brien both said they hope the vote doesn’t discourage the town’s highway employees, who have been working out of a temporary trailer since the fire.
As last night’s meeting started, the audience gave those employees a standing ovation for their flexibility and dedication. But now that department will continue to go without a proper break room or office space, Langwasser said. And the town’s equipment will likely remain scattered among a nearby state highway garage, a fire station bay and a parking lot where it will be subjected to the snow.
“I just thought that (residents) held those employees in very high esteem and that they would back a new building for them,” Langwasser said.
O’Brien told voters last night that the town could now choose to enter arbitration with the LGC.
While he believes Hopkinton could make a good case in court, seeing as the LGC’s own adjustors valued the building at $1 million, O’Brien said the town’s contract only allows for arbitration.
But that process, in which the parties and their lawyers would sit down with an independent mediator, is expensive, O’Brien said.
There is also no guarantee that the final figure decided on by the arbitrators would make the process financially worthwhile, O’Brien added.
Several audience members seemed exasperated with the dilemma and asked the selectmen to consider other insurance options when the policy expires in July. O’Brien assured them that the board would do just that.
(Tricia L. Nadolny can be reached at 369-3306 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tricia_nadolny.)