Municipal Buildings: The Politics: Building trust is a big part of it
(from Maine Townsman, March 1998)
By Jo Josephson

There are not one, not two, not three, but twelve articles on the town warrant this month in Clifton pertaining to a proposed municipal building.

One article asks if the town office should be included in the new building; another asks if the town library should be included; another asks if space should be included in it to hold town meeting; another if space should be included to rent out for private parties; several address the use of reserve monies for its construction; and last but not least, one seeks authority to begin construction.

It would be an understatement to say this town of 600 is not putting all of its eggs in one basket as it did in previous years. It would be an understatement to say that the folks in Clifton are being given a choice.

"We have tried everything; this is a last ditch effort," says Town Manager Cindy Grant, referring to two previous votes on the building. Clifton voters had rejected a $150,000 low interest loan from the Farmers Home Administration to replace the building that currently houses the town office and library, a building which has no plumbing and no room to hold meetings.

"Our main objective this year is to find out what the voters want in the building, as there appears to be no consensus in the town," explains Grant, when asked why there were so many articles. Grant says people agree that the town needs a town office but they can’t seem to agree what else the building should contain.

Paula Kelso, a veteran member of Clifton’s building committee, notes that when a combined town office/community building complex was presented to the voters the first go-round, they told us they "didn’t know what was going on" and voted it down 2-1. "We were stunned," says Kelso.

She speculates that the negative vote had more to do with trust than anything else. It didn’t help that the then town manager was viewed as doing a less than perfect job; it didn’t help that one of the selectmen’s family owned a local lumber mill. And it didn’t help that we waited until our committee was finished with its work before we invited the public in, says Kelso.

"We should have had people attending our planning meetings all along instead of asking them to attend public hearings when we were finished with our work," she says. "We should have made it clear that we were meeting every Thursday and that they were welcome to attend any and all meetings," says Kelso. "But then again, there was no meeting space in town with plumbing," she reminds herself.

Welcome to the wild and woolly world of municipal building projects. Be it a town office, a community center, a fire station, a police station, or a complex, housing all or some of the above, they are often not a quick and easy item to sell to the voters. Nor should they be. Not only do you have to have the need, the money, no outstanding debts, an informed public, and the right timing; even then, you may not succeed because of the politics woven through it all.

PERCEPTIONS & MISPERCEPTIONS

Citizen perceptions of the need for the particular project, as well as their perceptions of government in general be they valid or not, be they based in fact, fiction, or myth have a lot to do with whether a proposed building project will fly or not, say many of those interviewed for this article. They often determine whether you have a ready-made constituency that will support you or whether you will have to come up with some creative approaches in your sell.

Scarborough (pop. 14,800)

Need isn’t always the determining factor in getting the green light from the community for a proposed building project, says Scarborough Town Manager Carl Betterley. A lot depends on whether there is a ready-made constituency for the project. Schools have one, so do the fire department, the police, and the library, says Betterley.

Having managed Scarborough for the past 20 years, Betterley has come to the conclusion that there is no such constituency for the town office. "Although the town office provides valuable services, it’s also where you pay property taxes and it’s where you are told what you can and cannot do with your property," says Betterley. As such, garnering support for a badly needed new town office to replace one that was too small and without handicapped accessibility, failed the first go round several years ago in Scarborough, albeit narrowly.

But that is not to say it was never built. It was, but by a vote of the town council, not the public, due to being in the right place at the right time for an infusion of state monies that did away with the need to go to a public referendum.

Kennebunkport (pop. 3,348)

It took four tries and six years to gain approval for the purchase of an old church to house the Kennebunkport town office. And that was only after a police station, when jettisoned from the original municipal complex, won voter support and was built as a separate entity.

Kennebunkport Town Manager Jane Duncan attributes some of the past failures to gain voter approval for a new town office, in part, to the fact that local government hasn’t been very popular during the past ten years. She says it began in the late 80’s when mandates were demanding dump closure and shoreland zoning. With those mandates came the fear that government was growing too big, says Duncan. It’s no wonder that in a town noted for the independence of its residents and a high rate of volunteerism a big central place for government was viewed by some as "non-essential".

INFORMATION

Focus groups and surveys at the outset and public hearings before the vote are often not enough. Keeping the citizenry informed and engaged throughout the entire process may be necessary. But one thing is certain, say all contacted for this article, you have got to assure the public that you have exhausted all possible options, that you have left no stone unturned in reaching the option(s) you place before them.

Wells (pop. 7,728)

Unlike Clifton, the Town of Wells had involved the community at the outset, conducting a town-wide survey to pinpoint the needs of the seniors and youth in the community and the lack of facilities. It had also conducted focus groups at the outset to learn what the community wanted in the proposed facility a swimming pool. But the vote on a $3 million community center/town hall complex was a resounding "no" by a margin of 2-1, says Town Manager Jonathan Carter.

As Carter sees it, the defeat was, in part, due to the fact that the town didn’t stay in close touch with the citizens during the four years that it took to bring the project to a vote. Especially when you consider that one of the project’s major selling points, the swimming pool, was deleted early on in the planning of the project. "We didn’t keep taking the pulse of the community to see if they were still with us," admits Carter, noting that in a rush to referendum, there was little time to do so.

It also didn’t help that the town had lost the unique media contact it had with its citizens when the local newspaper that was including a special news section devoted to town news was sold and the new owners ended the arrangement with the town. It didn’t help that the town had yet to start up cable coverage of its board meetings.

Kennebunkport (pop. 3,348)

"People need to see how you reached your conclusions; they want to see comparisons, be it the cost of renovating an existing or building a new building," says Kennebunkport’s Duncan. "There are 3,200 independent minded people in this town and they want to be sure that we have done everything possible to evaluate the situation and that the choice they are being offered is the most cost-effective one," says Duncan.

As such, having finally received voter approval to purchase a church to house the town office and fire department, the Kennebunkport Board of Selectmen is now evaluating the cost of not one, not two, but three options. They are now calculating what will it cost them to: (1) renovate the church, (2) tear down the church and build anew on the centrally located lot, or (3) renovate the existing town office.

As Duncan sees it, to sell an idea and process, you have to show that you have exhausted every option, before you say, "This is the one." As such, before the next vote, the plan is to lay out all three options in a spreadsheet, says Duncan.

Duncan is also considering some role playing in preparation for the next vote. "We’ve been addressing this issue for so long, it’s hard for some of us to see the forest through the trees, so it will be important for us to look at the information we prepare and see what might be missing in order to avoid charges that "we are trying to hide something," she says.

TIMING

Never underestimate the power of timing. Some times are better than others; some times are worse than others. Things can come together fortuitously and they can readily fall apart through no fault of your own. But if at first you don’t succeed "try, try, again" appears to be the mantra of those who eventually do succeed.

Scarborough (pop. 14,800)

Scarborough was definitely in the right place at the right time in 1992 when the State’s Jobs Bond Issue passed making $28 million available to communities for infrastructure capital improvements, especially those who were able to leverage other funds for the project. Only those who had a project on the back burner were able to take advantage of the short notice. Scarborough’s recent and narrowly defeated plan to build a new town hall was a natural applicant for the grant. It had already been permitted and was ready to start construction.

Wells (pop.7,728)

If Scarborough was in the right place at the right time, Wells was not. Not only had its plans for its community building changed (the swimming pool was dropped to save money), the whole market had changed dramatically during the four years it took to bring the project to final vote.

Where it did not have competition at the outset, it did in the end. Not only from a proposed new school but also from a proposed youth center. Suffice to say, each had its own constituency. As Carter puts it, "The time lag had brought up other needs."

Waterford (pop. 1,433)

The town wasn’t ready for it in 1989; however, it was in 1995, says John Tucker referring to the fire station/town garage/town office complex that was voted down the first go-round. Tucker should know, he chaired the building committee that held more than 100 meetings before the second, successful vote in 1995. At that time, voters gave the town the authority to raise a sum not to exceed $400,000 toward the total cost of the $595,000 building complex.

Tucker says by 1995 a lot of things had fallen into place. The town’s three separate fire stations had been consolidated into one department under one chief, who got the ball rolling again. The town had saved $76,000 for a new fire station, setting aside money each year. And last but not least, after applying unsuccessfully two times for a Community Development Block Grant, it succeeded in landing a $250,000 grant.

Sidney (pop. 2,881)

It helped, says Administrative Assistant Gloria Ripley, that we could show that our town had the highest growth rate in the area since 1990 (4.4 percent) when we went to voters and asked for a 2,400 square foot addition to our 10-year-old 900 square foot office. It also helped that we could show we were not getting the town deeper into debt.

The state had just reimbursed the town $82,000 for its sand-salt shed and the town had just made its last payment on the landfill closure and the transfer station. "There was light at the end of the tunnel," says Ripley, adding that "if the project had tied us into a lot of debt, the project would not have flown."

Cumberland (pop. 6,124)

Back in 1986, when its old two-story town office had been deemed too expensive to renovate to comply with federal ADA requirements, Cumberland moved its town offices into an old one-story school building, which had been turned back to the town. However, by 1996 the old school building itself was in need of major repairs, if not a major renovation. Some estimated it would cost $1.2 million.

It was fortuitous that the school district was also facing a building project. The SAD had outgrown its portable classrooms but was reluctant to build a new school. As such, it was a win-win situation, says Cumberland Town Manager Robert Benson. The school district decided that if we moved out of the building, it could meet its needs by building an addition to the old school. This freed us up to build ourselves a new building that slightly exceeded what it would have cost us to renovate the school to meet our needs, says Benson. The two projects used the same architect.

NEUTRALITY

If you are going to market your project with informational brochures, stay neutral, especially if there is opposition to the project, advises Wells Town Manager Jonathan Carter, even if the monies to print and mail the brochure come from a private source.

If you don’t take a neutral position (just the facts), you could set yourself up by giving opponents to the project an opportunity to question your spending taxpayer dollars to advocate for only one side of the issue, says Carter, speaking from experience.

The fact that an informational brochure on the town office/community center complex called for a "YES" vote and sported both the town logo and the town’s bulk mailing permit caused considerable confusion in Wells. Even though the name of the "sponsor" that provided $2,500 to print and mail the brochure was included in the brochure, Carter says that were he to do it again, he would have the brochure remain neutral no matter who paid for it.

SIDEBAR:

Some Political Advice

 Need isn’t always the determining factor

 Include the community from the outset

 Cultivate a constituency for the project

 Keep taking the community’s pulse throughout the process

 Do your homework; exhaust all options

 Pay attention to timing

 Anticipate the questions; role play if you must

 Stay neutral when marketing the project