Kilmarnock Town Council’s recent decision to acquire property for a new town hall came under fire on Monday when dissenters claimed that a vast majority of the town’s business owners and residents opposed the acquisition.
But for Councilmember Rebecca Nunn, the question was: Where was the majority?
On March 18, Bob Wille, a resident and former councilmember of Kilmarnock, informed the council that he spoke to 50 residents concerning their decision to purchase the Bay Trust property on 1 North Main St., in the heart of town.
Of the 50 individuals, Wille said that 46 were against the decision because they thought the property would lead to traffic congestion, cause issues with parking, cost too much money or was acquired without the citizens’ input.
“Over half the citizens against this purchase wanted me to remind council members that they would definitely vote differently in the next election,” said Wille, adding that council members “should consider what the citizens want.”
Mayor Raymond Booth agreed, saying that an “overwhelming majority of residents” and business owners he spoke to on the street and by phone voiced their opposition to the purchase.
However, Councilmember Howard Straughan wondered where the opposition came from.
“I have not had any citizen of the town, to me, make any objection to a new town hall,” said Straughan.
“If the overwhelming majority of the citizenry and…business people are opposed to this, where are they?” she asked.
During the meeting, Wille was the only citizen to speak out against the acquisition.
Straughan, who along with Nunn noted that there had been public input for the need for a new town hall for over ten years, stressed that council strived to be conscientious in its purchase.
“We tried to compare the cost of that property versus three other alternatives, and [the Bay Trust property] was the least expensive to do,” he said.
“I think the citizens, once this is done, will be very pleased with the property,” Straughan added. “I bet even Bob Wille’s going to be proud of it.”
Nunn said neither parking nor congestion would be an issue due to additional parking spaces in downtown Kilmarnock, the closure of surrounding businesses during evening meetings and a stoplight with which to control traffic flow.
“Several businesses have already expressed delight at the town hall moving to their neighborhood,” said Nunn. “The council definitely wishes to respond to the citizens, and to do what’s best for them and for Kilmarnock.”
Nunn added that the purchase of the property would not cause an increase in taxes.
“That is just more of the rabble-rousing, fear-mongering claims that are being made,” said Nunn. “I urge all citizens not to be persuaded by half-truths, misinformation and outright misrepresentations.”
But Councilmember Shawn Donahue questioned if council had done a good job in communicating their interest in purchasing a new town hall to the public.
“Whether it’s the business community or the resident community, they feel left out,” said Donahue. “We’re going to spend a lot of money and they don’t know what’s going on.”
Nunn differed, saying that all of the town’s committee meetings, where there was discussion of acquiring a new town hall, are open to the public.
She added that Wille had attended three of them.
“But when you discuss real estate… you have to go into closed session,” she said. “That’s by law,” Nunn added. “So whether they come or not, [the citizens] wouldn’t have been privy to the closed session. “
The cost of the new town hall is $729,500, with approved renovations projecting a total price range of $800,000 to $900,000 for the building.
However, according to Nunn and Straughan, the end cost was expected to fall to $500,000 or under after the property being used by Kilmarnock’s current town hall was sold for its assessed value of $334,000.
But Councilmember William Smith said this might not be the case.
“I understand what Mr. Straughan is saying as far as taking the proceeds when we sell this [existing property],” said Smith. “But the end result today is, when we do our budget, we need to come up with the $850,000.”
Smith also reminded council members that it could take up to ten years before they sell the existing property.
“You really can’t take that into consideration,” he told council.
Furthermore, he emphasized the need for a certified appraisal before making the purchase.
“From a personal standpoint, I would not and cannot buy a house for $730,000 without having an appraisal,” said Smith. “I will not spend the town’s money without having an appraisal done either. “
Councilmember Mae Umphlett, who rarely speaks during town council meetings, was compelled to defend her vote in favor of the acquisition.
Umphlett said the Mayor’s office recently sent out a letter that used the term “Nunn-slate.”
“Frankly, I’m sick and tired of this remark,” said Umphlett. “I am 62 years old, I make my own decisions and I’m not influenced by others.
“I have always voted for what I think is best for the town,” she added. “Anyone implying otherwise is sadly mistaken or misinformed. “
The matter is expected to come up again at a future council meeting. Discussion on the topic will be open to citizens during public comments.