Belmont Election Results: New Library Wins Big, Rink A No … For Now

Photo: The old and the new: The existing building and a rendering of the new structure.

Belmont voters gave a rounding “yes” to a new public library building as the debt exclusion to pay for the new structure passed by more than 1,800 votes on the Nov. 8 state election ballot. The final tally was 6,763 yes against 4,916 no votes.

The same voters narrowly defeated a separate debt exclusion for a new skating rink/athletic facility to replace the delipidated ‘Skip’ Viglirolo Rink. More than 300 votes defeated it; 5,613 yes to 5,978 no.

But rink supporters may get a second bite of the apple as at least one of the three Select Board members said the debt exclusion could be back before voters at the annual Town Election in April 2023.

The two debt exclusion questions increased interest in the election as nearly two-thirds of Belmont’s 18,187 registered voters cast 11,974 ballots in person or via mail.

Preliminary results for all state-wide races and the four ballot questions can be found on the Town Clerk’s website here

Due to changes in state law, the public got their first look at a new two-stage voting process. The first vote tally – a long tape with results posted at each of the eight precincts – was day-of-the-election voting. A substantial number of votes from early and mail-in voting were calculated after the polls closed.

When the eight precinct tallies were counted, the library inched ahead, with the rink holding a slim 17-vote lead. A dozen supporters and interested residents hovered around the second-floor vestibule of the Selectmen’s Room as Town Clerk Ellen Cushman announced the more complete but still preliminary results.

(Final results will be certified when remaining votes from overseas, military personnel, and mail-in ballots with postmarks of Nov. 8 and earlier are tabulated.)

The third time was a charm for the supporters of the new library after two failed attempts to bring debt exclusions before voters in the past two decades. The new building, designed by Oudens Ello Architecture, will be built on the library’s current location at 336 Concord Ave. to replace the existing 56-year-old structure.

“This a huge victory for Belmont to get this library passed,” said Paul Roberts, who is associated with the “Vote Yes Library” campaign and was active on social media platforms presenting facts on the library project. He praised the work of the Board of Library Trustees, trustee Kathy Keohane and Library Director Peter Struzziero for “keeping a new library and bringing it back again and again so that we could bring this across the line.”

“It’s going to be a treasure,” said Roberts of the new library.

The cost of the 41,500-square-foot building is $39.5 million, with at least $5 million of that price tag reduced by an aggressive fundraising campaign from the Belmont Library Foundation.

An 11th-hour campaign to defeat the debt exclusion vote did not catch traction with the broader community.

What helped get the new library project to perform so well was its time before the community. The campaign began in 2017 with dozens of public meetings and forums over the past five years to review programming, design, and financing. The committee spent two years evaluating the current library’s building infrastructure and usage data, interviewing library staff and patrons, conducting wide-reaching community surveys, facilitating focus groups, meeting with community members, town organizations, and other key stakeholders, and holding multiple community forums, according to the trustees.

“[The library project] was very well known. Everyone who heard about the new building knew something about it,” said Roberts.

From treasure to disgrace

The defeat of the new rink proposal was surprising because there was no organized opposition. Of the two projects, the rink requires replacement, with the structure’s infrastructure and interior in dire condition.

Reactions from rink supporters to the vote were a mix of exasperation and despondency.

“It’s going to cost the town (an additional) $250,000 a year to field four high schools [hockey] teams,” said Mark Haley, chair of the Municipal Skating Rink Building Committee, after the vote was announced. “That’s a disgrace. This is disgusting.”

If the library proposal could be described as a marathon taking several years to present the plan to the public, the rink project was a sprint, having five months to finalize the design and finances and holding a handful of meetings with the public.

But Cheryl Grace, who headed the “Yes For Rink” committee, didn’t believe the project needed additional time before what was a large number of residents who were reluctant to support the proposal.

“There were a lot of people who were saying, ‘it’s not used by many people, so why should we put our money as a town into something that a small group uses’ and there’s nothing we can do to convince them. Time wouldn’t change those opinions,” Grace said.

What hampered the rink proposal was being on the same ballot as the library debt exclusion.

“I think the decision to put both of these (questions) on the ballot created some complexity, and clearly, there were voters who chose one and not both,” said Roberts. “Clearly, there were voters who said, ‘I can support one of these, I can’t support both of them’.”

And finally, there was the question of voter exhaustion, according to Lucinda Zuniga of the Belmont Youth Hockey Association.

“I think there’s fatigue from all the other projects, from the library, Middle and High School, police station, DPW, and the rest. And we were the last capital project remaining,” she said.

But as the sting of defeat was felt by supporters, a ray of hope that the proposal could be resurrected was provided by Belmont Select Board Chair Mark Paolillo who was in attendance at Town Hall.

“I think you have to think about [putting the rink back before the voters] long and hard, but it’s so close that it’s a split vote in town,” said Paolillo as Town Hall cleared out.

Paolillo said once the final tally in late November is certified and if the margin remains at 300 votes, “it’s pretty much a tie,” he said, noting that the Select Board – which placed the two debt exclusions on the same ballot – will need to talk to Town Moderator Mike Widmer to see if the Rink Building Committee can continue “for now.”

“So perhaps we go back out in the spring and continue to educate the residents about the need,” said Paolillo. “Clearly, we need a new building.

Rink Committee Cuts Cost To $32.3M; White Field House Stays, Harris Field Lockers Go

Photo: The location of the projected new skating rink/athletic complex will be built at the site of the current rink

Forty-eight hours after the Municipal Rink Building Committee’s design team presented an eye-opening $41.4 million price tag for the proposed municipal rink/athletic center, the committee on Friday, Sept. 30, voted to bring to the Belmont Select Board what it believes is a far more palatable request for the 48,000 sq.-ft. facility.

After a crash course by Ted Galante Architect Studio and Owner’s Project Manager CHA in cutting costs and rejiggering calculations, the committee will present at the Monday, Oct. 3 meeting a slimmed down $32.3 million – $32,343,487, to be exact – budget to replace the dilapidated Skip Viglirolo Rink adjacent to Harris Field on Concord Avenue.

“The $41 million cost, as we all concluded, is significantly higher than what we feel we can take to the town. And therefore, we need to do some [value engineering] to get that back to where we want to be, which is in the mid-30s, if possible,” said Building Committee Chair Mark Haley.

The significant changes in the revised budget are twofold: a recalculation of the contingency and escalation reserves as well as a list of value engineering reductions totaling $5 million.

The contingency reserve – that is, money set aside to protect against future unexpected costs that arise because of change orders or unanticipated expenses – has been reduced from $10.2 million to $6.5 million by consolidating two contingency line items into one and reducing the percentage

Another cost saving was found in lowering the percentage reserve for expected price escalation for materials and services, a change promoted by Haley that brought a warning from the design team.

“We can try it,” said Galante. “I think it puts us at risk, but we just have to be very careful about how it’s designed and what path we take for construction,”

After the contingency and escalation recalculations, the base bid construction cost – how much it takes to build the structure as well as the reserves for unanticipated expenses and all “soft” costs – for the rink came in at $38.8 million, which was still more than the top of the range of the initial cost estimate presented in July to the Select Board.

To bring down the projected cost to a more palatable cost, the design team proposed five potential options after conducting a value engineering study.

The option is:

  • The removal of the mezzanine deck. ($1.950 million)
  • Eliminating space for DPW-related storage. ($663,000)
  • Striking out the Harris Field Locker Rooms. ($1.547 million)
  • Delete the removal of the White Field House. ($535,000)
  • Reduce the scope of the parking area ($300,000)

Once presented, the committee voted to approve the programming cuts to reach the $32.3 million threshold.

Although the locker rooms were requested by the school district, committee member and Belmont School Committee Chair Meghan Moriarty said Schools Superintendent John Phelan told her the district was in favor of the value engineering reductions if it meant the total project price tag would be seen as more acceptable to the voters.

While five programming components were removed from the projects, they will be an opportunity for these to return later. Committee member Dynelle Long said the project can add a core shell – with foundation walls and supports – where the deleted programming would have been located to preserve the options of future construction.

That future funding could come from an existing pool of money set aside for recreational purposes.

“We should consider whether Community Preservation Act (CPA) funding is a way to pay for the plaza in front of the rink because, in fact, all of those, I believe, are eligible for CPA money,” said Anthony Ferrante, the Recreation Commission’s representative to the Committee.

It’s a question for the town whether that’s how we want to prioritize our CPA funds. But that’s a way of removing costs,” he said.

Rink Committee Scramble To Reduce/Explain Project’s $41.4M Price Tag Before Going Before Select Board

Photo: The interior fo the proposed rink in Belmont

In an announcement that caught the Municipal Skating Rink Building Committee by surprise, the design team and owner’s project manager presented the long-awaited price tag to build a new 48,800 sq.-ft. skating rink and athletic/recreation center adjacent to Harris Field on Concord Avenue.

What surprised the members was the estimated cost: a whopping $41.4 million, roughly $7 million more than the highest point of the $28 million to $34 million range the committee first estimated a final cost would be back in July.

The news, coming six weeks before the Nov. 8 general election in which voters will vote on a debt exclusion to pay for the project, had a number of members worried the cost estimate could scare off voters from supporting the rink on the Nov. 8 ballot.

“If we came under $30 million, this meeting would be all roses and sunshine,” said Owner’s Project Manager Tom Gatzunis of CHA. “But that’s the reality.”

The committee will meet at a hastily called noontime meeting on Friday, Oct. 1, to discuss the next steps as it scrambles to find ways to reduce the amount before heading to the Select Board on Monday, Oct. 3, for a review of the project.

Project architects Ted Galante and Gatzunis presented to the committee an overview of expenses at Wednesday’s meeting, going step by step to lay out each component of the construction phase.

The construction cost is $20.5 million, which is slightly higher than what was estimated in July. Add $3.7 million in liability insurance, construction management fees, and general conditions costs. The line items that rocketed the price were design and OPM contingencies and a reserve for escalating costs totaling $13.8 million. Tag on $1.5 million for hazardous removal associated with the demolition of the White Field House, improvements to parking, and roof solar panels; the price comes in at $36.6 million. Finally, assorted soft costs such as paying the firms, administrative work, and installing benches at $4.7 million, you come up with a total of $41.4 million.

Galante said his firm has hired Talevi and Haesche, a construction cost estimating consulting firm, for the past 14 years, and its budget has been “consistently on target with its estimates.”

“Nobody likes the number. I get it; it’s expensive,” said Galante.

See a chart of the costs below

Reaction to the announcement ranged from dread to defiance, as the new figure was well beyond what the leaders of the Building Committee had presented to the public as their best guess

“I see everyone rocking and rolling in their seats, twisting and turning and trying to grasp this whole thing,” said member and former Belmont High School Boys’ Hockey Coach Dante Muzzioli.

Some critics were blunt about the news.

“My biggest concern [is] we’re coming out with a number that is just too high,” said Tom Caputo, the select board representative to the committee.

“It is well beyond the high end of the range that we’ve talked about with the Select Board and well beyond where the community has already started to engage in the discussion,” said Caputo. The reason the select board approved placing the debt exclusion on the November ballot was the assumption that the final cost would be inside the range presented by the committee. “I think this number is bordering on unworkable.”

Will the community wrap its arms around the rink?

While not criticizing the process or the design team’s assumptions, member Muzzioli told the committee that “we really got to get a number that this community can wrap their arms around.” But after speaking to supporters who were waiving on their commitment for a rink at a $35 million price point, Muzzioli said the new cost “is going to be hard to swallow.”

“My personal request would be, what levers do we have in the next few days” to pull costs from the project, said Caputo. Suggestions began on strategically stripping program components from the rink, such as the high school locker rooms, and possibly removing or delaying the $1.5 million allocated to the rooftop solar array.

Chair Mark Haley and member Dynelle Long immediately questioned assumptions made by the cost estimators on the two contingency line items, specifically if the reserve should cover the entire cost of the project rather than just the construction of the project. “This just blows [up] the number,” said Haley. Savings were also suggested by taking a different look at the reserve for escalating costs pegged at 12.5 percent annually.

Both Galante and Gatzunis warned that making changes to the project at the 11th hour could backfire on the committee.

“I understand this is a big number for the town and to get this funded will be a heavy lift if it’s even possible. But we just want to be clear that we’re confident in this number and dropping it may put us in a much worse place later,” said Galante. “I think it is important to be cautious, but by being potentially overly cautious, we will put the project at risk in its own way.”

Galante noted that it has been requests by the town, schools and residents as well as the committee stepping up and taking on additional programs – such as the lack of lockers at the new Middle and High School and the loss of athletic and town space when the White Field House is removed – “that is really driving the construction cost numbers.”

Members expressed that the committee should stay firm with the plan presented Wednesday, pointing out

While not disagreeing that the designer should look to reduce cost where he can “I want us to keep in mind that there are stakeholders … who are interested in voting for this for some of the reasons we’re talking about cutting out,” said Meghan Moriarty, chair of the School Committee and its representative on the board. She noted the Recreation Department sees both the proposed second-floor community room and skate rentals as revenue producing and are very important to promote its programs at the rink.

“Although we are trying to make this palatable and fair to those in our community … we are looking for the one-plus vote to get this passed and some of those are coming from people” who are expecting locker rooms, solar panels and year round use.

Frank French Jr., the Belmont Youth Hockey Board member on the committee, said it’s important to inform and remind voters that it’s not a skating rink they will be supporting but an athletic facility.

“It is a point to explain to the community how much more they are getting than just a rink. It’s not an apples to apples comparison.”