We agree with our critics concerning the siting the Middlebury town hall that we should stay focused on the key issues facing the town and taxpayers. The point is not defining one’s position based on a holier-than-thou love of the town, or that one’s perspective would “save” the town’s most precious assets, while another might not. Let’s grant that we all love the town equally; let’s grant that each person is concerned about using the town’s assets in the best possible way; let’s grant that the municipal building is on its last legs and needs to be replaced; let’s grant that committees have spent the past 18 months, and the past 18 years prior to that, trying to reach agreement on how to move forward.
Nor is finding a site for the municipal building trivial, as one critic misinterprets what was written in a recent editorial. On the contrary, it’s a critical step in improving our downtown and municipal services. What that editorial called trivial is alleging, as a selectman did, that a prior “unsolicited” proposal by the college has any relevance today. It does not.
Nor should the focus be about one person’s spin on the issue or another’s, rather it’s about building a new town hall on a prominent site in the downtown that serves Middlebury residents well today and 100 years hence.
For the past 20 years, the default has been to try to make the municipal building work where it sits. Two years ago, town leaders again agreed to focus on a way to build new on the existing site. Architectural drawings were done, costs were estimated, a finance committee was assigned the task of trying to find outside revenue to make it fiscally viable. No additional funding was found. Faced with taking a $7 million-plus project to voters, which would increase the tax rate substantially for the next 20 years, or finding a better solution, another option was pursued.
The option currently on the table meets the town’s needs better than any proposal we have seen pitched in the past 20 years. None have been more comprehensive, offered more ameneties and side benefits to the town, or been as affordable for taxpayers. No other proposal, in short, has served the community so well.
What does not serve the community well is suggesting irrational solutions. Suggesting one solution is to simply ask the college to give the town $7 million or more to rebuild on the current site and get nothing in return borders on the absurd. It is not a reasonable request, but even if they were willing to have done that, there were plenty of opportunities (and, yes, they were asked) to contribute. So let’s get real. Let’s discuss the pros and cons of the current proposal and press opponents to answer the question they are avoiding: Are they willing to suggest that Middlebury residents finance $7.5 million for this new building by raising Middlebury’s property tax, or does the $2 million option sound better?
That’s the heart of this matter. What creates the best scenario for taxpayers — business and residential, short-term and long-term? And what does the community get from both proposals? The few vocal critics suggest a mythic value of the current site for which no amount of money is sufficient compensation, and they suggest a dirth of solutions for the library. Nonsense.
The selectboard is right to press ahead with full sketches of the proposed building on the Osborne site. With that in hand, the community will have a concrete vision of how a new town hall could mesh with the library, how parking issues could be resolved, and how much could be accomplished so soon with so little tax burden to residents. Problems need to be identified and worked out, but there remains plenty of time to do so and ample opportunity for public engagement before the vote; and if town residents prefer to reject this plan and pay more for less later on, they can decide that at the ballot box.
Angelo S. Lynn