Panton struggles with the upkeep of historic building

PANTON — A small group of Panton residents last week rejected a plan to borrow $40,000 to repair the cupola that sits atop Panton Town Hall, but town selectmen may not yet be ready to order its removal.
Panton officials have in recent years discussed renovations to Town Hall that would include bathrooms and a kitchen that could transform the building into a community and visitors’ center.
But first they must deal with the structure’s leaky roof, and that means solving the problem of the deteriorating cupola.
Selectmen said they have in hand most of the $32,000 needed to fix the leaky roof, but not the extra money to take care of the cupola and its underpinnings.
At a special meeting last Wednesday, only one yea supported a measure that would have given selectmen the power to borrow the $40,000 needed to fix the cupola, too.
But only 14 people were gathered, a number that included selectmen John Viskup, Beth Tarallo and Eric Carter.
Viskup, the chairman, summed up the sentiment of those present.
“The residents felt that because they didn’t foresee the residents of Panton’s income increasing in the future, given the tough economic times … they didn’t want the residents’ taxes going up,” he said. “They voted down the $40,000, and I didn’t think they wanted us to find any other way to use their tax dollars to do it.”
The options remain:
•  Removing the cupola and replacing the hole with new roofing, an action that could also limit the town’s ability to obtain historic preservation grants for the building in the future;
•  Fixing the cupola and its underpinnings, the most expensive immediate course of action; or
•  Working around the cupola and fixing the rest of the roofing.
Viskup said that leaving the cupola as is could compromise the roofing project, and the town must act soon to protect the rest of the structure from water damage.
“If we don’t do anything, we won’t even have a town hall,” he said. “And we’ve been debating this for at least two years, just trying to get this roof fixed. And it can’t go any longer. We have to make a decision.”
Viskup, like other selectmen, had hoped more residents would show up last week to decide what has been a widely discussed issue. And he noted the article that had been proposed did not include the simple question of whether to keep the cupola or not.
“It was a very small turnout, I really expected a larger turnout because a lot of people have voiced very strong opinions,” Viskup said. “That’s why the selectboard is still facing the dilemma of the cupola.”
Tarallo hopes more people will talk to the board, with any luck before they sit down again on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. and take up the question again.
“With such a low voter turnout it’s really difficult to gauge the will of the people,” Tarallo said, adding, “I’d love to just hear what people think.”
Tarallo said it might be possible to hold off on the project long enough for selectmen to get a better take on how residents feel about the cupola. She would like them to weigh in on a clear up-or-down article.
“I’d like to see a vote specifically on what people would like to do with that cupola … at a venue with a better turnout,” she said.
Carter also said he was not quite ready to vote to remove the cupola. Late last week, Carter said he hoped to use this past Saturday’s celebration of Panton’s 250th birthday to talk to residents about the cupola.
Certainly, Carter said the take-away from last week’s meeting was clear.
“The message we have from that is that $40,000 is a lot of money, and that given the economy … people don’t want to spend the money,” he said.
Carter also believes selectmen should at least discuss another vote because the limited article from last week’s meeting still leaves the board “in a quandary.”
“My personal view is I’m still not willing to do that (remove the cupola) without a clear vote that yes, take it off,” he said. “I think that’s where we need to go next.”
Viskup took away a different message last week.
“What I heard was remove the cupola and fix the roof correctly,” he said.
While acknowledging the article’s gray area, Viskup said one key question remained — where’s the money coming from, especially given that most agree Tropical Storm Irene damage will almost certainly suck up all available historic preservation funding.
“We could have said, do you want to retain or remove the cupola?” he said. “But then you’re still left with the question, how do you want to fund it?”
Tarallo said she thought the danger posed to the structure by the leaky roof was not so severe that selectmen and residents could not take time to make a good decision.
“It’s something to consider, but there are many considerations,” she said. “It’s the will of the people, there are financial considerations … and what’s good for the structure of the building itself.”
Carter said the board should not wait much longer to act, but he believed selectmen should have “clear direction” from Panton residents before taking off the top of their Town Hall.
“Once it’s gone,” he said, “it’s gone.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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