Vergennes sets public forum on 6,000-square-foot police station

VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen agreed on Tuesday to adopt a 6,076-square-foot, 24-room building as a working model for a new police station, and they set a Nov. 27 public informational meeting to explain to residents why city officials believe the building is necessary and hear feedback from taxpayers.
Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel said the draft plan has won approval from law enforcement officials around Vermont and is designed to meet the needs for a 10-man city department now and for the foreseeable future.
On Tuesday, he urged aldermen and residents to support a proposal he and city officials said Middlebury’s Bread Loaf Corp. modeled after its award-winning Middlebury police station.
“My fear is we don’t build this the right way, and we come out with half a building,” Merkel said.
All city officials agree the department’s tiny two-room office in City Hall is inadequate, and Merkel said the proposed building does not have frills.
“This is not an extravagant floor plan,” he said. “This is exactly what our department needs.”
The plan includes a smaller “operations” side with two rooms to interview suspects, two cells, a separate juvenile holding area, a booking area, a sally port where police cars can drop off prisoners in a secure and private area, an armory and a storage area.
Merkel said that area is securely divided from the other side that has a separate interview room for victims and informants; men’s and women’s locker rooms; a patrol room that can accommodate 10 officers; separate offices for the chief, a sergeant and a detective; a fitness room; a training room; evidence storage; a lobby; an intake/administrative/room; and records and information technology/phone system rooms.
Merkel and City Manager Mel Hawley agreed that a proposed five-bay garage and storage building was not critical, and aldermen said it could be added later. Hawley said that 1 acre was adequate for the plan, even with the outbuilding.
Bread Loaf recently estimated construction of the building, including the garage, on a city-owned parcel off New Haven Road would cost $1.78 million, including about $440,000 for site development.
Hawley said the other sites being looked at — including parcels along North Main Street and the Addison County Eagles Club — would be cheaper to develop, but would include purchase costs that are unknown at this point. Aldermen, Hawley and Merkel met behind closed doors on Tuesday to discuss sites and made no decision outside of that executive session.
Middlebury’s police station is 7,620 square feet and houses a department with 16 full-time employees, including an administrative assistant and a dispatcher, and four part-timers, including two dispatchers. It cost $1.78 million to build on town land in 2003 and 2004.
The preliminary Vergennes proposal is for a force of 10, six full-time employees and four part-time, all in law enforcement. Hawley said while the department might not need more officers, it might need to increase its ratio of full-time policemen in the years to come.
On Tuesday, he estimated that an annual bond payment on a $2 million project would be about $180,000, a figure that currently would add almost nine cents to the city tax rate.
Hawley also said, however, that aldermen could choose to apply the city’s Water Tower Fund toward bond payments. That fund, fed by cellphone companies who pay to hang broadcast equipment on the city’s former water tower next to City Hall, now nets about $94,700 a year, Hawley said on Wednesday.
If aldermen chose to apply all the annual Water Tower intake toward paying for a police station similar to one outlined in the working plan, Hawley said the tax impact could by roughly halved.
Officials stressed that although they believe the plan is a good one, they need to convince residents for what Hawley said could be a March vote.
Alderman Bill Benton said he wanted the final proposal to pass on the first vote.
“I think the floor plan makes sense,” Benton said. “I know there are some little concerns I’ve heard here and there, but cutting it by 5 percent doesn’t make sense … Questions about cost can be answered satisfactorily to the public.”
Hawley said informing the public about the department’s needs and growing workload would be critical. The department made 150 arrests and responded to more than 2,000 complaints in the past year, both annual highs for the force.
“This is about educating the public about why the Vergennes Police Department needs a building that is 6,076 square feet,” he said.
Alderman Randy Ouellette agreed.
“The way this is going to pass the voters is to explain this is a need, not a want,” Ouellette said.
Alderwoman Ziggy Comeau added another point.
“And we have to explain how we can afford this,” she said.
Hawley acknowledged that “public input could cause us to change” the plan, and Alderman Renny Perry made a motion, which was approved, that rather than adopting the floor plan outright aldermen should view it as “a working plan for us to proceed.”
Perry also moved for the public forum, another motion that was approved. Aldermen agreed to set aside the first hour of their Nov. 27 meeting, beginning at 7 p.m., to present the plan and take questions and input.
“That’s going to give us a better feeling of where the wind is,” Perry said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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