NORTON — Residents narrowly approved a $41 million Proposition 2 1/2 debt exclusion for a new town hall, senior/community support center, and athletic complex at Saturday’s annual town election.
However, voters, by just over 300 votes, rejected proposed changes to local government that would have done away with town meeting and created a town council.
The tax hike for the construction projects passed 1,665 to 1,568.
The long-planned building projects are expected to increase the tax rate by about 78 cents per $1,000 property valuation for the first half of a 30-year bond, and about 59 cents for the last 15 years. That would translate to $78 and $59 per $100,000 valuation, and total an estimated $2,069 per $100,000 valuation over the bond period.
The town hall is estimated to cost $23.3 million, the senior/support center $11.1 million, and athletic complex $6.3 million, for a total of $40.76 million.
With interest factored in, the overall tab would run to roughly $57 million.
A 24,450-square-foot, two-story town hall would replace a cramped and structurally-deficient building that runs 14,800 square feet, part of which dates to 1910.
The new town hall would require the nearly 1 1/2 acres of land between the current location and police station.
A 11,850-square-foot senior/community support center would replace an 1,850-square-foot building dating to 1880.
The town’s senior population is skyrocketing and a community support center is needed for all ages, officials say.
Select board members have an agreement to purchase a six-acre Mansfield Avenue (Route 140)/Freeman Street site for the center.
As for the athletic complex at the high school, many of the existing facilities date to 1972 and the plans call for new and rehabilitated ones.
In the other ballot question, residents opposed adopting a new charter by a vote of 1,775 to 1,468.
A nine-member charter commission developed the proposed charter, which is the outline for local government, following about two years of study and input.
Under the plan, the five-member select board would have been eliminated and a seven-member elected town council would have become the town’s legislative branch, replacing town meeting. The town manager would have also taken on more authority.
The proposed changes would have modernized town government, producing a more efficient, more representative form of governing, commission members say.
In the only contest on the ballot — a three-way race for two three-year select board seats — Christine Deveau, with 1,439 votes, and board member Megan Artz, 1,705 votes, won over Frank Parker who received 1,240 votes.
The board will have a female majority for the first time in town history.
A total of 3,252, or about 24 percent, of the town’s approximately 13,700 registered voters turned out to the middle school poll and voted by absentee ballots.
“I thought it would be a little higher,” Town Clerk Lucia Longhurst said.
The permanent building committee worked for a few years on the building plans.
“I’m elated,” committee Chair Dinah O’Brien said. “It’s wonderful the community support is there.”
“I’m excited,” select board member Michael Toole said. “The infrastructure in town has been neglected for years.”
The debt exclusion still has to be approved at town meeting May 8, however.
As far as voters’ rejection of the change in government, “I thought the town missed a huge opportunity to move forward,” select board member Renee Deley said.
“Clearly it’s not a step we were ready to take yet,” select Chair Jack Conway said. “I’m thrilled with the outcome” of the debt exclusion question. The narrow margin it passed by tells me we have a lot more work to do to solidify support in advance of town meeting.”
Former longtime selectman Robert Kimball, who was at the polls awaiting the results, was very content the building projects were approved.
“I think it’s time the town heals and comes back together and focuses on more positive things,” Kimball said, adding “it’s obvious the town is still torn.”
Kimball said he thought the charter could have had a better chance of passing if it was scaled back. “I think it was way too much change,” he said. “I think if it was more minor, the town would have gone for it.”
Mark Sweeney, a former member of various town boards, most recently the recreation commission, said he backed both ballot questions and was “shocked” by the results.
“I’m disappointed with the charter but very, very happy with the debt exclusion,” Sweeney said.
Voter Jim Domaldo backed the charter changes as well.
“I think it’s time for the town to change. It’s too big to have the same old town government,” Domaldo said, adding of the debt exclusion, “I think it would be nice to improve the town. It’s worth the money.”
Resident Tom Burke opposed the charter.
“You would have a small group of people making all the decisions,” Burke said, mentioning how he is a strong believer in town meeting. “You have to hear what the people have to say.”