Editorial: How to get to ‘yes’ on public projects

Published: 11/22/2018 9:25:49 AM

In the recent mid-term elections, voters nationally were reminded that every vote counts, as many races came down to a handful of votes. Here in western Massachusetts, residents are used to tight votes, as demonstrated in Montague where voters approved a new public works facility this year by a slim margin, with 688 voting “yes” and 649 voting “no.”

It’s a familiar story: Towns request new facilities – a library, a highway garage, a fire station, a public works complex – and voters dig in their heels, sometimes for a decade or longer, before approving any project that will increase their property taxes. The kicker always comes in the privacy of the voting booth during a Proposition 2½ override, the last step in the process, when residents get the chance to reverse their approval easily given at town meeting.

Yet, such projects do eventually get built, and their experience offers answers toward the challenge of overcoming Yankee frugality.

There are many public projects in the pipeline in the region, including in Orange, where the Wheeler Memorial Library project is currently 12th on the state list for funding. It’s moving up the list quickly, and backers of the plan are already developing plans and preparing to explain the proposal to voters. As they prepare to make the pitch for local tax dollars, they can learn some lessons from their neighbors to the west, which have just gone through this process.

How to get to ‘yes’

1. Provide lots of information. “Give us the information to vote ‘yes’ if you want us to vote ‘yes,’” said Conway resident Alexander Caswell at a meeting that saw the latest plan for a new highway garage scuttled. Voters opted twice in 2014 not to borrow money for the project after learning of the $2.6 million price tag.

2. Answer lots of questions. In Buckland, residents asked questions about the ways the debt exclusion would affect their taxes, as well as the possibility of getting grants to do the project and why the committee chose to have a pole barn as part of the project.

3. Offer site tours. In Northfield, the volunteer fire department has held open house at the fire station to point out cracks in the concrete floor beneath the fire trucks, and tight quarters for training and equipment.

4. Demonstrate staying power. Buckland Town Administrator Andrea Llamas tried one tactic after another to keep the highway garage project alive until voters finally approved it last week.

5. Be persistent. It’s natural to want to throw up your hands over setback after setback. Bernardston Fire Chief Peter Shedd lamented, “How many other lots are we going to look at? How many times are we going to do this stuff over and over and over again? Where is the end of the tunnel? Is there an end?”

It’s only futile if you give up; otherwise, there’s still hope.

6. Get the price down. In Buckland, the town sought $3.5 million for new construction of a highway garage, but that proposal was narrowly defeated. To succeed, Ray Lanza-Weil said the committee worked to get the lowest price possible, which is now a grand total of $2,822,853. Selectman Zachary Turner said, “This is a good price. I do construction work for a living, and this is $1 million less than I anticipated the cost was going to be.”

7. Cut out frills. Break rooms, multi-functional meeting rooms, kitchens, overnight facilities, air conditioning and other amenities that make sense for some large departments can come across as overreaching in the pinched fiscal climate of many small towns.

8. Look at different options. In Bernardston, where the Fire Department says it has outgrown its current station at 18 Church St., a project committee has, at different times, proposed three sites: the present location, a site at 23 Kringle Road, and the Valley Concrete property on Route 10, near Mount Hermon Station Road.

9. Be willing to compromise. In Northfield, a public works facility was floated that would have brought emergency services and police under one roof. The price tag gave its citizens sticker-shock. Since then, the Northfield Fire Department has been re-examining its present site for expansion.

10. Listen to the community. Bernardston Selectboard Chairman Brian Keir said of the current fire station site, “Our feeling is that’s what the community can support, based on what we’ve heard from a lot of people.” In the end, you have to give people what they want.

Groundbreaking for Buckland’s new highway garage could start as soon as this winter. The town ticked off all the boxes to get to “yes.” Congratulations and, for the other towns, keep up the good fight.

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