Falmouth faces a dilemma during a time of high unemployment and a flat economy: whether it’s wise to move ahead with a costly plan, no matter how worthy.

The town needs to decide what to do with its Plummer-Motz and Lunt schools, which will be entering their last year as elementary schools next month. The two will be replaced by a new $40 million elementary school next fall, leaving the town with two empty buildings and about 20 acres at the intersection of Lunt and Middle roads.

A town-appointed committee, which started its work before the recession, is recommending that Falmouth move its town hall to Plummer School, addressing concerns that the current town building is cramped, needs renovations and isn’t energy-efficient. Lunt School, the committee said, could become the new library, giving that facility a chance to move from its bursting-at-the-seams site. The Motz wing of Plummer School, which has a gymnasium, could become a new community center, and the concentration of those three facilities could create the town center that Falmouth lacks, the committee suggested.

The cost would be about $10 million, with about half of that offset by the sale of the vacated buildings, a fire station the town recently closed, and five acres around the schools, although cost estimates and potential sale prices are still being developed. But that would still require taxpayers to come up with about $500,000 a year to cover the bond payments, lost property tax revenue from not selling the school buildings to private developers, and the operating costs of the new buildings.

That would add about $50 to the municipal property tax bill for the owner of $200,000 home. The bill currently runs about $2,500 a year.

Councilor Cathy Breen, chairwoman of the committee that unanimously endorsed the proposal, said she understands concerns about adding to tax bills at a time when many homeowners are struggling. But she said the opportunity to replace two aging town buildings, provide land for concerts and farmers markets, and create a central gathering space for residents is too good to pass up.

She noted that the town council has kept tax rates steady for two years “precisely so that, in times of need, we can do a smart investment.”

Breen said that if all the town facilities stay as they are, taxpayers will still have to come up with money for repairs and upgrades. That includes an addition for the library, which is running a growing inter-library lending program from a staff kitchen.

Breen wants the council to act soon so that any plan to move the facilities can start rolling next June, after students vacate the two schools. Plans calling for an outlay of $1 million or more have to go before Falmouth voters, and if the council wants the question on the November ballot, it will have to decide in early September.

“We’ve been at it for over two years,” Breen said. “The big thing about November is that the buildings are going to be empty in June” and if work doesn’t start next summer, “the taxpayers are going to be paying good money to maintain empty buildings over the (next) winter, and that’s just a waste.”

But some in town want officials to slow down, including a group of residents circulating a petition asking to delay a referendum until residents get a detailed outline of how an alternative — selling the buildings and land to a private developer — would look.

Given that some of the proposal has been dealt with during the summer, when many residents are on vacation or are less connected with town projects, people should have more time to look at the plan and alternatives, said Lisa Preney, who is helping to lead the opposition.

“I feel a lot of this has gone on under the radar,” Preney said,

Tony Payne, town council chairman, said it’s not the time for such an ambitious project.

“There is no worse time to pursue what I perceive to be wants, when people’s needs are not being met,” he said.

Payne said Falmouth’s current town hall, while not perfect, is adequate, and the library could put more effort into developing access to electronic versions of books instead of adding shelf space.

Payne also said the area around the schools is largely residential, which he doesn’t think is the best place for a town center.

“This would become an isolated additional town center,” separate from the commercial corridor that has grown up around Route 1, Payne said. “It’s a government center. It’s not where the heart of the town is.”

The council has scheduled a workshop Aug. 9 to discuss cost estimates and potential sale prices, with a public hearing likely Aug. 23.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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