New Leb residents hear of options for a town hall

NEW LEBANON – Town Hall: What Now was the subject of a community forum at the library March 8 sponsored by the Lebanon Valley Business Association (LVBA). The approximately 25 residents in attendance received a history lesson from members of the Building Committee on past efforts to solve the problem of the current lack of suitable space for town business and meetings.

The efforts date back to 2004, when officials determined the current Town Hall had serious structural issues, necessitating the closing of the first floor meeting and court space. Since then, town meetings and Town Court have been held in alternative venues, most notably the Legion Hall, owned by the Lebanon Valley Protective Association. Although no rent is paid, the town is responsible for certain usage costs, which, according to several committee members, is money better spent on property owned by the town.

New Lebanon residents twice defeated referenda held last year to finance renovations and additions to the current Town Hall. In June 2010, 88 residents voted to support the measure while 182 voted against it. In December, voters defeated the proposal by a margin of 128 to 191. Cost is widely seen as a major factor for these defeats.

In June town residents appeared to balk at the $815,000 in borrowing authority being requested. This was less clear in the December vote, where $415,000 in borrowing authority was requested. The town planned to use capital reserves and volunteer labor to address full project costs.

To help Town officials get a better read on the feelings of residents about how to handle the Town Hall problem, the LVBA conducted a survey of its members and others on its email list last month. Of the 47 who responded, approximately half voted “no” in the December referendum. Respondents, however, declined to reply to the question seeking the reason for their vote, according to LVBA President Fiona Lally.

This was disappointing since, as one Building Committee member put it, if you ask five persons why they voted “no,” you will get six reasons. In addition, although survey respondents indicated factors they thought should be considered in evaluating alternatives — for example, cost, parking, etc. — these factors were weighted fairly equally, giving planners less than the hoped for direction on community preferences. The need to refine these criteria, according to Ms. Lally, gave rise to the March 8 forum.

As stated by the forum’s moderator, past LVBA President Kay McMahon, “Doing nothing is not an option.” Of particular concern is the potential for the owners of the current meeting space at Legion Hall to replace the current building with a firehouse. Although this may not be imminent, Building Committee members saw significant risk in not to remedying the lack of a long term, reliable space in which to conduct town meetings.

Building committee members discussed the various options that have been explored over the years, including the Ceramtec building, which has since been re-occupied by a manufacturing business, the existing firehouse and the Clark building, among others. In most instances, the cost of acquiring the property and completing necessary renovations exceeded the cost estimate for fixing and adding to the current building and were therefore rejected.

Renting a site is seen, according to one committee member, as “pouring money down the drain,” but a lease with an option to buy is considered by the committee as a viable option if the property can meet town needs.

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