Town Hall Project

There are plenty of Heckles and Shprekels to pass around these days. The latest batch is inspired by the Town Hall Project, which has become controversial, at a time in Farmington when there is already enough controversy and divisiveness to last us a millennium.

First, some background: Beulah Thayer has offered the town a generous gift—the gussying up of the town hall: paint, varnish, new lights, new curtain for the stage, a movie screen, new chairs, a sound system, "California" closets for the Town Players, etc.

However, the Gift comes with certain conditions: Mrs. Thayer wants to reopen the balcony, which has been closed because of fire-code safety concerns. She also wants the basketball gang out of there, and the bleachers removed. Her spokesman and clerk of the works for this project is Marty Gilman, and there has come into being The Committee. The members of The Committee are Beulah Thayer, Marty Gilman, Lorraine Meyer, Larry Parent, Susan Loker, Brian Blake, Rick Thayer, Diane Thayer, Sylvia Thayer Zaeder, Phil Zaeder, and two selectmen, Joan Funk and George Meyer. Selectman Matt Scruton was invited to be on the Committee, but when he saw that three selectmen gathered together and possibly discussing the project would constitute a quorum (of selectmen), he recognized the impropriety of that, and withdrew posthaste.

No one is debating some of The Committee members' interest in fostering the arts, and yet not one of Farmington's many fine artists has been "invited" to join the Committee to offer suggestions for an imaginative transformation of the town hall into a true center for the arts. Does The Committee not want ideas and suggestions from our artists, or for that matter, from anyone else in the community?

But even before any discussion should occur about how to transform the old town hall into a true center for the arts, while retaining the other community uses for the building, there should be a deliberative process which involves a clear plan for bringing the building up to fire-safety code.

The town hall is a public building, as Paula Proulx and Matt Scruton and Paul Parker have repeatedly pointed out, and while the Gift is most appreciated by all citizens in the town, there is concern that The Committee is making decisions that go beyond the mere "sprucing up" of the building. For example, one of the "conditions" of the gift is that the bleachers, which are town property, must go. But perhaps the town likes the bleachers. Some townfolk prefer to sit on them at town meeting, because they can get a good view of the action on the floor.

The Committee should not on its own decide that the bleachers must go, nor should it push ahead with its cosmetizing the building before the townspeople have had all the time it takes to decide if it can, in effect, afford the gift, especially if taking the gift means they must spend money on things like costly fire escapes or sprinklers for the balcony.

The town knows it has to do certain things (put in fire extinguishers and signs, fix doors, etc.) to bring the building up to fire-safety standards and possibly— once a report comes back from a consultant hired to advise the town exactly what the state will require of us by way of fire-safety improvements—a costly sprinkler system. If the town is told it needs to install sprinklers (not cheap), it will have to bite the bullet and do that. However, if the balcony remains closed, the town, may not have to shell out for sprinklers up there, nor will the town have to fix, repair, replace, or roof over the existing fire escapes, because no one will be up in the balcony and in danger of life and limb. But the town waits to hear from the expert, Sean Bergeron, to whom the town has already paid money to tell us just what is required of us, the taxpayers, by way of bringing the building to "safe" standards.

And yet, Meyer and Funk, the two selectmen who are also on The Committee, want to push ahead with the "private" side of the project before they hear from Bergeron and before the selectmen know what the town has yet to fork out on the "public" side. It could be as much as $300,000, or it could be less, and in a time when the proposed budget for the town is already $720,000 over the level-funding line, $300,000 is no small piece of change for the already-overburdened taxpayers in our poor town to have to shell out when they might only be required to shell out considerably less than that to bring the building up to code.

So, Beulah Thayer has indisputably made a generous offer, but with certain "conditions" attached: the balcony must be opened (and with it, the fire escapes must be made good), and the bleachers must go, and the basketball players must shift their operations to the Burtman-Rondeau gym at the middle school. But beyond that, where is the discussion (which could be lively and interesting) about what Beulah's money will be going for other than a—granted—lovely cosmetizing of the old town hall—about how this spruced up center for the arts will be used, other than for two or three plays a year by the Town Players?

Marty Gilman has been designated Clerk of the Works, at $40 an hour of taxpayers' money —at least on the "town" side of the project—i.e., bringing the building up to code. As clerk of the works, he is supposed to get bids on all work, all equipment. (But as we shall point out below, he seems a little miffed that the selectmen—or rather Matt Scruton and Paula Proulx and Paul Parker— actually expect him to get bids, as any clerk of the works is required to do.)

On the surface, Mrs. Thayer's gift appears to be a most generous one: spruce up that old building, make it nice for the Town Players. But repeatedly Marty Gilman, and Selectmen Meyer and Funk have been saying, or implying, that while Mrs. Thayer is a generous woman, she is understandably "eager", and wants to have (Gilman said at the December 14 2005 BS meeting) 75% of the work done by next town meeting in March. But the question has been raised by Matt, Paula, and Paul, and others in town: what is the hurry? Why push the selectmen, the town, into hurrying a project when the pertinent questions have yet to be answered ?— i.e., How much is the town actually required to do to bring the building up to code? And, Will they be forced to shell out more than required because Mrs. Thayer's work will be 75% done by town meeting, and then the argument will be: We can't be ungrateful for Mrs. Thayer's gift, so let's shell out public money for things we might not have otherwise had to shell out.

Put it this way: the problem some townfolk see, and that selectmen Matt Scruton, Paula Proulx, and Paul Parker clearly and responsibly see, is that there is a manifest attempt to rush the project through, before the selectmen know exactly what the town's part of the project will be, and how much that part will cost the taxpayers, and who will be dictating what to do with this public building, or what uses it may or may not be used for in future. And those who would rush the project through are demonizing those—including our three honorable selectmen—who would suggest we wait till we have all our ducks lined up before we allow the items on the Gift list to be completed, and then the town is stuck to meet the "conditions" of the Gift—again, the balcony must be reopened (sprinklers and fire escape), or feel obligated to spend money it might not otherwise think it can afford because, after all, the Gift comes with certain "conditions".

It isn't easy to convey the back-room decision-making in which the Town Hall Project seems almost hopelessly steeped, but perhaps these Heckles and Shprekels will serve to illustrate the wheeling and dealing.