Bel Air’s town hall will stay put for now, after the Board of Town Commissioners voted Thursday night not to purchase the former BB&T building on Main Street.
In a 3-1 vote, the commissioners opted to keep town hall at its current location on Hickory Avenue, scuttling a plan that would have cost the town between $4 million and $5 million but replaced what some view as an aging, cramped facility.
Commissioners Terry Hanley, Robert Preston, and Robert Reier voted against buying the building, while Commissioner Chairman David Carey voted in favor. Commissioner Eddie Hopkins was present for part of the board’s closed session Thursday night, according to Hanley, but left before the vote was taken.
The town reached a contract to purchase the building for $1,567,000 in March, Hanley and Carey said. But the two commissioners differed on the costs of renovating it as the new town hall, and how the project would be paid for.
Carey said the building was recently appraised for $1.75 million, $200,000 more than the contracted sale price. According to him, renovations would have cost between $2 million and $2.5 million, putting the total cost of the project at about $4 million. He said that price could have been paid for without raising taxes, but instead by cost-cutting measures including the elimination of several vacant town employee positions–measures he said the town will still proceed with.
Carey said the commissioners voted 5-0 in March in favor of the purchase contract, beginning a 30-day study period. A second study period was requested, at which time the commissioners sought a formal appraisal of the building’s value–an appraisal Carey said didn’t arrive at town hall until Friday, a day after the final vote.
“Everyone knew the [contract] price, they voted in favor, 5-0, to do the contract,” Carey said. “We had 60 days to figure out if we could’ve afforded it, and we could’ve. I think the others just got cold feet.”
“If raising taxes was the only way we could have done it, I would have voted against it, and so would the other commissioners,” Carey said.
Hanley, meanwhile, said renovations to the former BB&T building would cost approximately $3 million, not including an additional $1 million in renovations to the Hickory Avenue building at some point in the future to maximize its use by the town’s police department.
Funding the project, he said, would have required cutting services to residents and raising taxes as the town faces a projected decline in revenue this year.
“These numbers are not etched in stone…but my personal opinion is that if we were to do this, we’d have to raise taxes—immediately,” said Hanley, who was one the initial proponents of buying the building. “And that’s something I think the commissioners weren’t comfortable doing.”
If the building had been purchased, the town’s Planning and Zoning department would have been reunited with the rest of the town services at the Main Street location, while the Hickory Avenue location would have become the sole home of the town’s police department.
The town’s future plans for its central office and meeting place are now uncertain; while Hanley said the Hickory Avenue building is “still functional,” Carey said he saw a clear need for some type of change.
“I don’t know what the next step is,” Carey said. “We had three commissioners vote against [the purchase of the new building], I would think it would be up to them to propose something.”