The assumption was that we were heading for a special election on December 6 in which residents would decide on a debt foreclosure that would pay for much-needed renovations inside Wellesley Town Hall and further increase the taxes.
But Wellesley chief executive Meghan Jop and chief financial officer Sheryl Strother told the Select Board and then the Consultative Committee last week that the funds needed to cover the project could eventually come from within the levy, those generated from regular property taxes and other city revenues. This would be an alternative to approving additional external borrowing as has been used in recent years to fund middle school renovations and to fund the construction of new school buildings in Hardy and Hunnewell.
In last year’s citywide financial plan, there was an estimate of a $19 million debt exclusion that would have peaked with a median increase in the tax bill of $100 at the during the 2025 financial year.
“Looking at that in conjunction with a number of other things that have come up this year, including water rates, the potential for a corporate stormwater fund and just looking at various increases in ‘taxes, Sheryl…came to me and was like, ‘I’m looking at the numbers and I think maybe we can get it inside the levy,’ Jop said. “I was really skeptical. I said, ‘Really?’
Strother said: “We are fortunate to have a large amount of money available that could be spent… the money available is obviously made over a long period of time, it could be spent on an investment project that will last long time.”
A combination of pandemic-related subsidies, fewer municipal hires (and health care and other costs associated with that), and less spending on items because they’re unavailable due to supply chain issues. supply have left the city with a much higher than usual amount of free currency/reserves – part of which (say $13 million) could go a long way toward funding the City Hall project. The city currently has about $8 million more in its reserves than its policy recommends.
A renovation of the exterior of City Hall completed in 2020, and an article on the construction of the interior renovations is on the mandate for a special town meeting in October.
Construction is expected to begin next year with completion estimated in fall 2024. The overall construction cost would be nearly $23 million when temporary relocation and other expenses are mixed together. This is in addition to the $1.85 million town meeting approved last year for design work.
The Council selected August 30 received an update on City Hall project construction plans and financing options.
Glenn Remick from Wellesley’s Facilities Management department gave an overview of the project, which aims to recognize the historic significance of the Town Hall building, which was erected in 1888 and was last refurbished inside in 1985 (Remick gives a fuller presentation at the Aug 25 building standing committee meeting, approximately 5 minutes into Wellesley Public Media recording). The renovation is designed to update aging mechanical and other systems, make the building’s interior more usable and attractive to the public and employees, embrace sustainability, and meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The interior redesign will also impact the exterior: the current entrance that faces Washington Street will be closed, the historic bell will be moved in front, and a new entrance will open to the right of it. The building is the result of the merger of an old library and a town hall.
Renovation plans took around 10 years to draw up, with a past idea being to add an annex to the building. That plan was scrapped when the pandemic hit, and the city approved design funds last year to redesign the interior design that would allow more departments to use the main building (land-use departments have recently moved to offices on Rte. 9). You may remember that the discussion about building electrification led to a Town Meeting drama last year.
Much of the project could be paid for with cash on hand, and the rest could be cobbled together in other ways, such as working with the city’s permanent building committee to identify unused funds ($1.4 million dollars) from previous projects that could be redeployed. at the municipal assembly. Other past municipal assembly approvals (over $3 million) have also been identified that could be redirected to the City Hall project if the special municipal assembly is approved.
Even with such a plan, Jop says his team is confident they can maintain support for other priority projects in the city five-year financial plan without borrowing outside the direct debit.
While this may all sound like a slam dunk – using available money to pay for the City Hall project instead of raising taxes again – not everyone on the Select Board was immediately convinced by this approach.
Board member Ann-Mara Lanza raised the issue of opportunity costs and what else the money could be spent on, such as renovations to Morses Pond. She asked if not doing a debt foreclosure for the town hall might push other smaller projects into that territory.
Strother said no other projects on the list (various HVAC updates, some DPW construction projects, etc.) are planned outside of the drawdown loan, but as costs rise, it It is difficult to say if the municipal assembly will approve these projects or according to what timetable. “We don’t foresee a debt exclusion at this time for these projects… We will always try to finance within the levy if we can afford it,” she said.
Board member Beth Sullivan Woods says investing in City Hall is a good use of funds, but she thinks voters should have a say in how so much of the their tax money is spent. “I guess I’m not comfortable not asking the voter to support a project of this magnitude that we should all be proud of for generations to come,” she said. Sullivan Woods added that she’s not entirely comfortable the city has enough cushion to fund other projects and costs already on Wellesley’s radar or that may arise.
Colette Aufranc said she likes the option of using available money to fund much of the City Hall project, and noted that such a strategy has been used in the past on library projects. and Warren Recreation Center. “It’s really difficult right now to go and ask people for more taxes when we have these big reservations,” she said. “If we have to go out and ask people to borrow money, I wish I could space that out a bit.”
Tom Ulfelder said residents, through Town Meeting representatives (with guidance from Advisory), have had the opportunity to reflect on the Town Hall project and judge its value. Debt exclusion votes by the public in the past also failed to attract a high percentage of eligible voters, he said.
“We could instead give voters a significant tax break after what they got on their bills because of the Hardy and Hunnewell projects, the increased water bill,” Ulfelder said. “The taxpayers, the people of Wellesley deserve a break. And we have the financial capacity to provide that break and continue to fund the various projects that we need to…”
A few board members have asked for a little more time to consider the matter, and a vote has been scheduled for the September 12 board meeting.