Wakefield Wannabees

In his lecture last week, the Editor told us to look at Wakefield as a model of what is possible in Wolfeboro with a public/private partnership. Excellent advice!

Wakefield is about half the size of Wolfeboro in terms of property tax base. Their town tax-rate is about 40% less than Wolfeboro’s. The Town Hall is brick and of similar construction and vintage to Brewster Hall. I went over there to take a look, talk to people and review their town reports for the past eight years.

The private part of the story is an organization called Wakefield Projects, Inc. Organized as a charitable non-profit, they are the Wakefield version of the Friends of Town Hall. They started up a year or so earlier than the Friends in 2006. In 2008, at their Deliberative Session, a representative of WPI committed the group to providing $2 for every tax dollar spent on the upstairs Opera House.

To date, the town has spent about $450,000 fixing the town offices. They’ve got a nicely renovated ground floor, sprinklers all around, and get this – bathrooms! Real male and female bathrooms. On each floor! By contrast Wolfeboro has appropriated almost a million dollars since buying Brewster Hall, and have practically nothing to show for it. Wakefield’s ground floor has new windows, but not $2,000 top-of-the-line Pella windows. Like Alton, their slate roof is long gone, replaced with asphalt shingles that look fine and can be serviced by local tradesmen.

Most impressive is that they did it all with annual appropriations to a Capital Improvement Reserve Account. They didn’t borrow a dime. In fact, Wakefield as a town has almost no debt at all. They borrowed $250,000 a few years back for a sewer project, and their total debt is $90,000 remaining on that bond issue. By contrast Wolfeboro owes about $21 million, with roughly half to be serviced by taxes, and half by water and electric rate payers.

Talking to people around the town hall, it’s not all good. Apparently the Wakefield Projects people would like to float a bond issue to finance their version of what remains to be done. Others in town are skeptical that the cost estimates are realistic and reluctant to go into debt over it. Sound familiar?

The Wolfeboro Friends website says that their plan is to raise $1 million and use that on the upstairs Brewster Hall, contingent on the taxpayers borrowing $3 million for the rest of the project in 2014. We should be so lucky as to be like Wakefield. When I told the office people there that I was from Wolfeboro and looking for town hall ideas, they laughed. I was so proud.

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