As Middlebury residents face a revote next Tuesday on its proposed $6.5 million municipal building/recreational center project, we tip our hats to the more civil nature of the debate this time around. Arguments have stuck to the core issue of the value of the buildings being proposed, their location and how well they will collectively serve the public.
Arguments against the proposal continue to prefer rebuilding or renovating the facilities at the current site. The location is ideal, proponents say, and a renovated gymnasium would maintain that architecturally sound facility with its 1930s, brick-heavy style. The municipal building may need to be razed and rebuilt, or undergo very significant renovations, but at least the location would be preserved. Two other reasons to renovate the existing gymnasium, proponents suggest, are that the senior center and teen center would keep their existing facilities in the gymasium’s spacious basement. Finally, many argue that more time is needed to discuss the proposals and better planning would yield a better outcome.
The primary downsides to this argument are: the uncertainty of its cost (projected at $4 to $6 million, but possibly much more depending on how much energy-efficiency measures are implemented); the certainty that it would cost taxpayers significantly more than the $2 million taxpayers will be responsible for the bond proposal; the economic inefficiencies of maintaining buildings that are 100 years old; and, after 20 years of study and discussion, do we need more time to study the proposal at hand?
Proponents of Article 1 (see story on Page 1A for brief review of the upcoming vote) argue that the bond proposal yields Middlebury taxpayers with two new buildings at a $2 million pricetag that can’t be replicated without significant outside funding. Moreover, combine the $4.5 million the college has pledged toward the project, add up to a million dollars to raze the current facility and move the Osborne House, plus another $1.2 million in land value that the college recently gave to the town (behind the library), and you have about $8.5 million value for $2 million in taxpayer funding. It’s not often that taxpayers in any place in the nation can put one dollar down, and get a four-dollar-plus benefit.
And that benefit will likely grow. Last week it was announced that a new program from Efficiency Vermont will provide grants for net-zero municipal buildings, and the college stepped forward to help meet any additional funding to make that possible without adding any burden to town taxpayers (see story Page 1A and a letter in this issue from Chris Huston). With that recent development, a good building project just got a lot better.
Furthermore, the college has released preliminary plans to create a new town-college park at the current site of the municipal building — no costs have been released, but preliminary drawings indicate a substantial sum would be invested by the college to create an attractive park for all Middlebury residents, students and visitors. The value is likely to be closer to $9 million, and likely is if the purchase of the former Lazarus building on Main Street is connected to the overall proposal.
Nor is the college likely to turn away from future initiatives if the need serves both town and gown. An important premise is that by establishing, and maintaining, a strong relationship with the college, the town has a willing partner when crucial issues come to a head. As we noted last week in this space, the future of Porter Hospital hangs in the balance of health care reform and will likely require a strong partnership between the hospital, town and college to yield the best results. Similarly, town efforts to attract new businesses and industry are in partnership with the college — a commitment in its infancy that we can only hope will continue. And a new rail depot will be a need soon on the horizon.
As a general rule, cooperative relationships yield more fruit than those severed by ill feelings.
Of the 20 or so letters we publish in this issue on Middlebury’s bond vote, most are well considered and informative. We encourage readers to spend the time to understand their perspectives. In a letter of opposition to the proposed project by Middlebury resident Skip Brush, we would only question his speculation that the cost of razing the existing building and moving the Osborne House might be two, three or four times more than what is projected at $1 million. That appears to be wild conjecture. Professionals have looked at the project and the $1 million is their estimate. Otherwise, folks have expressed well-informed opinions and we encourage all to read them for greater understanding of the issues.
One additional argument in favor of Article 1 is that municipal tax rates are projected to increase over the next couple of years as the state increases property tax rates to pay for increases in education expenses. A recent report from the legislature suggested the state was expected to increase taxes by six and seven cents for the next two consecutive years. Any provision that reduces municipal tax rates today, will make it easier for Middlebury taxpayers to absorb other increases in the future.
As we have in the past, we support the project because we think the buildings will be superior to what we have today; because the value-to-cost ratio works out exceptionally well for Middlebury taxpayers; because we have more important issues to resolve in the years to come and we need the town tax capacity at the ready; and because, after 20-plus years of discussion, this is by far the best proposal put before the voters. It may not be perfect, but what a loss it would be to have perfection be the enemy of good.
This is a good project that deserves our collective support. Vote yes on Article 1 next Tuesday.
Angelo S. Lynn