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Historic facility saved

Pending donations, Hancock to borrow up to $817K for Meetinghouse

HANCOCK — By a margin of 171 to 36, well above the two-thirds majority required for approval, Hancock voters on Saturday agreed to borrow as much as $817,412 to do major renovations to the Meetinghouse.

The project includes a new slate roof, upgrades to the foundation, reglazing and painting of windows, two new handicapped accessible bathrooms, a ramp to make the lower level handicapped accessible so it can be used for town functions and a lift to provide better access to the First Congregational Church sanctuary on the upper floor. The cost had been reduced from earlier estimates of as much as $1 million after bids from contractors and commitments from volunteers to do some of the work were received.

At Saturday’s meeting, Gary Ryer, chair of the Meetinghouse Restoration Committee that has been working on the project for more than a year, said more than $240,660 has been pledged to support the project, of which $47,000 has already been received. If all the pledges are fulfilled, the actual net cost to the town should be about $624,000, according to Ryer.

“We have a stewardship, a responsibility to this building to maintain it,” Ryer said. “It’s our responsibility at this point. It’s important to do this work.”

Ryer said the current slate roof dates back to the 1880s and needs to be replaced. He said a new slate roof could be expected to last 100 years.

“The slate has served us extremely well,” he said. “Other materials have nowhere near the test of time that slate has.”

Ryer said the 40 windows on the building should be restored to prevent water damage.

“It’s a good time to do this now,” he said. “If we wait a year or two, we could be looking at replacement at a much higher cost.”

Hunt Dowse, a Meetinghouse Restoration Committee member who worked on fundraising, said interest rates are historically low, which makes this a good time to borrow money. He noted that a second warrant article that voters would be addressing called for using fund balance money to pay off $146,803 remaining on a long-term note issued when the town purchased land on Prospect Hill several years ago. Eliminating that higher-interest payment will help offset the impact of the Meetinghouse bond payments, Dowse said.

According to a property tax calculation sheet passed out at the meeting, if the town borrows the full $817,412 for 15 years, the annual payments would be $67,240 and would add 27.3 cents per $1,000 assessed value to the town tax rate. That would amount to $54.60 annually, starting in 2015, for the owners of a home assessed at $200,000.

Dowse said the amount to be borrowed should be less than called for in the warrant article, because so many people have made pledges toward the project.

“I can’t imagine that they’re going to back out,” Dowse said.

Resident David Bedard, who opposed the warrant article, had prepared a handout for the meeting showing that the amount of taxes collected in Hancock for town, school district and county support had risen by 18.2 percent from 2010 to 2013. Bedard said he wasn’t opposed to improving the Meetinghouse, but residents should take time to examine and clarify the roles and responsibilities of the town and the First Congregational Church regarding how the building is used.

“Who owns this building?” Bedard asked. “Why haven’t we sorted this out? Why are we rushing? There’s no urgency to start this now.”

DPW Director Kurt Grassett said a town attorney had reviewed documents, which date back to the mid 1800s, about ownership of the building. For years, the upstairs sanctuary has been used by members of the First Congregational Church, which is now affiliated with the United Church of Christ. The town has used the downstairs part of the building, where Town Meetings were once held, and for 40 years the space was rented to the Hancock preschool, with the town collecting the rent. The building has separate furnaces for each level, with the church paying for heat upstairs and the town downstairs. Insurance costs are split 50/50 between the town and church, Grassett said.

“Is there concern that the issue is so fluid,” asked Kerry Bedard. “What are the roles going forward?”

The legal opinion, Grassett said, is that the church and the town share a “common undivided interest in the whole,” where ownership is concerned. He compared the situation to a marriage, where those involved work together to share responsibilities.

“I don’t do half the shopping, but I eat more than half the groceries,” Grassett said, drawing a laugh from the audience.

Judy Copeland, the pastor of the church, said she was confident that church members would be open to working with town officials to map out a plan for the future and Select Board chair John Jordan said the board intends to discuss the issue with church members.

Longtime resident Bud Adams, who recalled attending square dances downstairs in the Meetinghouse in the 1960s and ringing the church bell for hours at a time, said no one ever really questioned the arrangement until recently.

“This has always been our church. If you had a death, they’d bury you. If someone wants to be married, they’d marry you. I hope we keep it the way it is,” said Adams, to loud applause.

And Select Board member Jim Mose said the project deserved town support, linking his fingers as he revised the old nursery rhyme: “This is the church. This is the steeple. It’s fallen in. And crushed all the people.”

When it came time to vote, the warrant article passed on a secret ballot, with 83 percent in favor.

Other issues

After the lengthy discussion on the Meetinghouse, the voters spent little time on the remaining warrant articles.

They unanimously approved the town budget of $1,970,606, which was up 2.75 percent from the previous year, with no discussion. Jordan said the budget included 3 percent raises for town workers.

“We have excellent employees and we really want to keep them,” he said.

Voters agreed to use fund balance money to retire debt on the purchase of land on Prospect Hill, to buy a new police cruiser, to rebuild a backhoe, to repair the Nubanusit Lake boat launch site and to help fund the Fourth of July fireworks display. Jordan said the ruling requiring the Local Government Center to refund excess surplus money to towns and school districts had resulted in the town getting refunds of about $179,000. That pushed the town’s fund balance to $643,000, well above the $400,000 that the board generally keeps on hand for emergencies. He said it made financial sense to pay off the Prospect Hill debt and use fund balance money for the other projects.

While discussing his request for a new sport utility vehicle police cruiser, Police Chief Andy Wood suggested that the town could keep its old Crown Victoria cruiser and keep it parked in various locations in town as a speeding deterrent. Dave Carney then proposed to amend the article to eliminate wording that called for the old cruiser to be sold or traded, saying voters should take Wood’s recommendation to heart.

Jordan said town officials have discussed having a third cruiser many times.

“We don’t need to keep an extra car,” he said. “There’s always an expense.”

“We’ve been through this before,” said resident Howard Weston. “We’re going from two to three. I’m against it. Bud’s left, but he’d be against it too.”

But a slight majority were for it, approving the amendment 62 to 56 and then passing the revised motion on a voice vote.

The motion to improve the Nubanusit boat launch site by adding concrete logs to make it easier to get trailers into the water passed.

“It’s a relatively inexpensive repair up there,” Grassett said. “All we want is for boats to be able to go in and out safely.” He said the landing is in such poor shape that there’s a danger that trailers could get stuck or oil or gas could leak into the lake.

Select Board member Erik Spitzbarth reminded voters who were concerned about use of the lake by nonresidents that the lake is owned by the state, not the town, and access is required.

The petition article urging voters to support a constitutional amendment to override the Supreme Court’s Citizens’ United decision passed by just one vote, 23 to 22. (See story, page 1).

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