Ray Duckler: Bradford a town divided on eve of town hall renovation vote
Bradford is once again voting on improving its Town Hall February 9, 2006 (Concord Monitor photo/Thomas Whisenand)
Some residents of Bradford went to sleep late March 13, or in the wee hours of the 14th, certain the old issue about restoring the old town hall had, finally, become old news.
Boy, were they in for a rude awakening.
The next morning they learned their recurring nightmare had not gone away, with a late vote to reconsider Article 4 passing about four hours after the measure had initially failed.
So, with the fight continuing tonight at 7 at the Bradford Elementary School, a word of advice to those who want to voice their opinion: Get there early.
The town is buzzing over this one. In the post office. In the grocery store. In the
administration offices, where emails and phone calls have blitzed workers there.
Built 150 years ago, the same year Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, the town hall project has created a civil war that has disrupted the harmony normally equated with a charming New England town.
Some longtime residents have apparently stopped speaking to each other, split over the question of a $1.8 million bond to renovate the town hall. Those in favor, including both the budget committee and selectmen, have lobbied loudly in favor. Those opposed are no less passionate.
They don’t like the condescending tone directed at them by the town’s power brokers, namely the budget committee and board of selectmen.
They don’t like the manner in which their concerns over a recent tax increase have been marginalized, and they believe the increase was presented in a deceptive way at last month’s town meeting.
And, most of all, they don’t like the fact that when they left the meeting shortly before it had ended, they believed the article to spend the money had fallen short of the necessary two-thirds vote for passage.
“This is my first time getting involved, but I did my homework and I’m presenting the facts,” said Mary Bellino, a physics teacher who’s lived in Bradford for nearly 10 years. “I’m not looking at such a rosy crystal ball that they’re looking at. Yes, (interest) rates are historically low, but does that mean we should put ourselves in hock?”
Count Bellino among the project’s opponents. Numerous messages, all anonymous, including one with an electronically created voice that sounded like a robot from a sci-fi movie, have been left on a columnist’s voicemail, complaining about a powerful network that is unfairly pushing through its vision for a cultural center.
“I do know some people who in my estimation, when they speak up at selectmen meetings and town meetings, they are spoken to in a very condescending manner,” Bellino said. “Even myself, by one selectman in particular, it sounds like, ‘You should go home now, little one.’ When I go tomorrow night, I’m going to speak my mind, and if someone speaks to me in that manner, I just might let them know.”
The debate centers around what to do with the town hall, closed since 2011 because of mold, poor plumbing and lack of handicap accessibility, among other things.
Once, the building on Main Street served as the pulse of the town, housing town offices downstairs and hosting dances, movies, Christmas shows and piano music upstairs.
Restore past glory, the theory goes, and attract new business to town.
That’s what the selectmen and the budget committee and restoration committee have been saying.
But will square dancing on Saturday attract merchants?
“I really don’t think that revitalizing the town hall in such a large fashion is going to entice other businesses to come to the town,” she said. “I don’t think other businesses care what kind of town hall you have. If I was in business, I would be wondering what kind of demographics do you have, traffic in and out, do I have parking, can I make a profit?”
And what about tax increases, and how those increases could affect homeowners? The books say there were 22 foreclosures last year, and there have already been three this year.
“They’re going to price people out of town,” Bellino said. “The economy really is not picture perfect. There are a lot of families that are struggling.”
Then there’s the matter of timing. Money was approved by voters who figured the $1.8 million price tag was not part of the overall budget.
Plus, the motion to reconsider surfaced near 11 p.m., about four hours after residents had chosen to kill the article. By then, many fiscal conservatives had left.
“Very interesting,” Bellino said. “I think it’s part of the plan. I don’t think it was sinisterly planned, because they have a right to reconsider. But you can think that if you don’t get the two-thirds vote, and you know it’s going to drag on late and a lot of people will leave, it will probably end up where they have a majority and they can reconsider then.”
And there you have it, a big deal in a small town.
Four days before the race in Boston, the Bradford Marathon hits the finish line tonight.
Tempers, one town official said, could run high.