To The Daily Sun,
Belmont voters deserve options.
Article 3 in the Belmont's Town Warrant bundles three decisions into one package with a total price tag of $3,357,250 ($2,957,250 funded through a 20-25 year bond and $400,000 in Town Capital Reserve funds). What's proposed is:
1. Repair and protect Belmont's historic Mill built in 1833 and partially restored/adapted for reuse in 1998 after a major fire in 1992. Work proposed includes masonry restoration, and structural work. Cost: $1,064,930
2. Replace poorly functioning electrical, mechanical, and sprinkler systems in the mill. Cost: $ 845,399
3. Relocate current Town Hall Offices to the Belmont Mill with complete renovation on all four floors (build office space, meeting rooms, furnishings, construction for additional storage and contingency funds). Cost: $1,446,921 (Note: These costs are not separated out fully in the town summary, but are drawn from materials provided.)
Town selectmen and staff are to be commended for hiring certified/licensed professionals for a comprehensive assessment of our most important landmark building, the historic Belmont Mill.
There's no doubt that protecting the mill is a vital investment in Belmont's future and should move forward. Replacement of the building systems also appears to be a good investment for its long-term use, but could be completed when building use is expanded.
What isn't offered in this proposal is a full public discussion on the merits of moving Town Offices to the mill, comparing costs with renovation of the existing Town Office which still has an unused upstairs/second floor, or repairs/renovation of the vacant bank building purchased three years ago for Town Offices.
The current proposal calls for all four floors of the mill to be used for Town Offices, and a smaller Senior Center. Housing fewer than 20 full- and part-time employees does not require the entire mill which is almost three times the existing town office space. The gross square footage of the Belmont Mill is close in size to Laconia's City Hall, a facility designed for a far larger community and staff.
Belmont is exploring alternatives for active reuse of the bank building on Main Street. Shouldn't this also be explored with the mill and Town Hall building as well? Belmont has supported innovative efforts before, like using Community Revitalization Tax Credit to help improve the village neighborhood. So why not use creative public and private ventures to improve these buildings at a reduced cost and increased community benefit?
By combining all these decisions in one bundle, Belmont voters lose the opportunity to choose the elements of the proposal they support or to look at other options such as phasing these improvements, and seeking partners to improve the Mill and share the space.
Belmont needs a better Capital Investment Program process with a five-year project priority list that clearly defines potential public investments. Decisions like restoring the mill, moving Town Hall, expanding the Police Station, looking at library needs and building recreational trails can be planned, shared, agreed upon and budgeted in advance.
I encourage Belmont voters to look at the information the town has posted on Article #3 http://www.belmontnh.org/projectsbelmontmill.asp and attend the Deliberative Session on Jan. 31, and the public information meeting on Feb. 23, at Belmont High School. And be sure and cast your ballot and vote on March 10.