THE $15 MILLION PARKING SPOT
It’s one thing to figure out the tax bill for a homeowner’s new deck or rehabbed kitchen, but the board of assessors in the town of Rowe faced a more unusual valuation conundrum last year: Just what is the property value of 244 tons of nuclear waste?
The waste is the last visible remnant of the Yankee Atomic Nuclear Power Plant, which was built in 1960 and shut down in 1991. The plant has been dismantled and the site cleared in an effort to return it to (and this is the industry term) a “green field.”
But with the opening of a nuclear waste repository in Nevada still at least a decade away (if it gets built at all), the waste will remain in Rowe for the foreseeable future. Mostly consisting of spent fuel rods, it is stored in 15 concrete casks on a parcel of land owned by the Yankee Atomic Electric Company—which, in turn, is jointly owned by 10 New England utility companies.
“Things are pretty cookbook when it comes to houses,” says Rick Williams, chairman of the Rowe board of assessors. “You look at square footage, what kind of condition. That gets fed into the computer and it spits out a value. But for something this unique, we had to turn to experts.”
That meant talking to officials in two other New England towns with shut-down nuclear plants: Haddam, Conn., the former home of Connecticut Yankee Atomic; and Wiscasset, Maine. Selectmen in Wiscasset reached a settlement with Maine Yankee after a two-year dispute over the value of a site where 600 tons of radioactive waste are stored. Harvard Law School professor Peter Murray, who consulted with Wiscasset selectmen, also advised the Rowe board. Assessors considered not only the value of the land but also Yankee Atomic’s “avoided costs” in not having to find an alternative waste site.
“What we came up with is an assessed value of about $1 million per cask, or about $15 million,” says Williams.
That’s a quarter of the $60 million valuation of the plant at the time it closed, and, along with the $100 million valuation of the town’s Bear Swamp hydroelectric plant, helps keep Rowe’s property taxes among the lowest in the state.
THE FREELANCE TOWN CLERK
And the value of a competent town clerk? Priceless. A good town clerk keeps up with the flow of new state regulations, files paperwork in a timely and accurate fashion, and, in most towns, keeps a low profile.
But how low is too low? That was the talk of the Berkshire County town of Monterey last summer, after the selectmen’s full-time secretary, Melissa Noe, complained about the number of people hunting for town clerk Barbara Swann during Town Hall business hours. For much of her 20 years on the job, Swann has worked from her home, and now she shows up at Town Hall only on late Wednesday afternoons and on Saturdays.
Swann, who has a telephone billed to the town in her home, counters that hers is not a front office job, and people always know where to find her. Besides, in a town largely made up of vacation homes, with only 1,000 year-round residents, Swann says that limited, off-peak office hours just make more sense.
Town clerks constantly have to re-jigger their computers to accommodate forms and procedures stemming from new legislation, she says.
“Same-sex marriage brought huge changes to the job,” she says. “That was all right, but it was something else to learn. And I’m not alone. The tax collector and the treasurer are subject to the same whimsy.”
Swann says she was surprised by the questioning of her work schedule, but she seems nonplussed by it all. The 67-year-old, who holds a doctorate in political anthropology from Brandeis, points out that she was elected to her post, and is thus beholden to voters rather than to other town officials. (She’s up for re-election in 2009.)
“If the state were to complain, saying, ‘She never gets anything done in a reasonable time,’ then [the board of selectmen] can request that I be down there more,” she says. For now, she’s not budging.
CARNEGIE’S LEMON LIBRARIES
It’s not only town officials who have to change with the times: Buildings do, too. Rockport selectmen have conditionally approved the $506,800 sale of the town’s century-old Carnegie Library to a Florida doctor and his wife, who intend to convert it into a summer home. The town built a new library in 1993, and the old brick-and-granite building, not far from the town center, had been vacant since 2004. Town administrator Michael Racicot says the building had deteriorated over the years, and the cost of maintaining and restoring the building had been too much for the town.
“We’re not getting any taxes from it, and we don’t have the staff to keep it up,” he says. “It’s beautiful on the outside, but it only has one toilet for the whole building.”
That’s a common lament in the 43 Bay State communities that own beautiful (but now aged) buildings that were part of industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s $56 million plan to create more than 1,600 libraries around the United States. Built at the turn of the last century, after the Chicago World’s Fair, the libraries are distinctive, ornate public edifices of stone and brick. They virtually shout: “Lift thineself up!” There’s just one problem: The buildings never worked well as libraries, says Corinne Smith, librarian at Anna Maria College in Paxton, whose Web site necarnegies.com tracks the fate of Carnegie libraries in the Northeast. Why not? Too many windows, not enough shelf space. And that circulation desk in the center? Downright unworkable. (Most of the libraries were built from among six floor plans provided by Carnegie.)
“They were impractical from the beginning, and the basic structures have grown more impractical as time goes on,” Smith says.
Factor in the infrastructure requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, plus the space and wiring needs for computers and other technologies, and we’re talking Extreme Makeover: Library Edition.
Still, the Bay State bent toward preservation and reuse endures, and only three Carnegie libraries here have actually been torn down or burned. A few others have been converted to different uses: In Worcester, Carnegie libraries are now a school building and an apartment duplex, and Reading’s former library is now part of the Town Hall. (The town of Freeport, Maine, leases its building to an Abercrombie and Fitch outlet.)But most remain working libraries; for example, all three of Somerville’s branches are Carnegies. The city of Leominster recently capitalized on the Carnegie cachet by polishing up and refurbishing its 1910 library, while also building a three-story, $12 million addition, which opened this summer. The complex is proving to be a big hit with locals, as well as a spark for downtown revitalization.
Says director Susan Shelton: “I think Andrew Carnegie would be pleased.”