Friday, October 5, 2012

Town Hall Buildings Always a Tough Sell

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on October 5, 2012


By Bill Gouveia

Talk to area town officials about what capital expenditure is hardest to get voters to approve, and you will get different answers. Some will say it is getting a new school built. Others will point to improving various infrastructure projects. But one item that makes almost everyone’s list of the most difficult to get public support for is the building of a new town hall.

There are several reasons for this. First and foremost, taxpayers don’t like to spend money on things that – in their minds – do not benefit them directly. While they certainly care about the employees who work for them, they are a bit removed from the actual working conditions as well as the shape of the physical plant.

If you think about it for a moment, it makes sense. Town Hall is more a concept than an actual location for most of the voting public these days. Though town employees still have plenty to do, fewer people actually go there anymore - and with good reason.

In this highly technological world, you can perform most of your town-related business online. You can pay your taxes via your bank or your computer. Selectmen and other municipal meetings are televised on local cable access. Most town charters and bylaws are also linked to town websites. You can email departments with various questions and download forms, all while saving valuable time and gas.

So when local officials outline the problems plaguing their aging buildings, voters are skeptical to say the least. They tend to compare town buildings to issues with their own homes. They can’t afford to replace their aging and inefficient heating system? The town should make due also. Their worn carpeting has to last longer? The town should do the same.

Norton’s town hall adjacent to the fire station is a converted gymnasium built on the cheap with a federal grant (and no property tax dollars) in the 1970’s. It was a disaster when it opened, and has gotten progressively worse over the last 35 or so years despite efforts to maintain it. The use of space is terrible, the heating/cooling system a nightmare, and the air quality questionable to say the least.

In Foxboro, their 48-year-old town hall has some similar issues. The town manager there has a plan to replace the building for about $8 million, and some believe it can be renovated for about $5 million. Town Meeting may be asked to approve a transfer of about $500,000 from available funds to start the process. Officials originally planned to do this last year, but the feeling was “the timing wasn’t right”.

I’ve always loved that argument. Have you ever seen a “good” time for a town to spend millions of dollars on a municipal building? In all fairness, Foxboro voters have recently funded some other expensive projects. .But imagine taxpayers sitting around the local watering hole saying, “You know, this has been a pretty good year – let’s spend a few million bucks on a new town hall”. That just doesn’t happen in these parts.

But in communities like Foxboro and Norton, town hall (the building) has been a problem for quite some time. Poor air quality and just the passage of time have turned these edifices into gigantic headaches for both employees and officials – the former getting them literally, and the latter virtually.

Just about every time any community starts to talk about replacing or renovating their town hall, you hear some residents state they are trying to build “ a Taj Mahall”. While that may be true in some places, taxpayers in this area tend to keep their officials pretty honest on their building projects. Drive around and you don’t exactly see a lot of political castles rising majestically towards the clouds.

Still, the financial ability of any community determines whether or not they can afford to build or renovate. With millions in revenue coming from the local NFL franchise each year, Foxboro has a much better chance than Norton of securing funding. Norton has no active plans to replace or renovate their building at this time.

So take a deep breath, all you local town hall employees. Well, maybe not too deep. At least not just yet.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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