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Vergennes defeats new police station in close vote

VERGENNES — Vergennes residents on Tuesday dealt the $1.85 million proposal for a new North Main Street police station a narrow defeat, 302-292, a result that left city officials up in the air about their next step.
Mayor-elect Bill Benton said aldermen would take up the issue at their next meeting, probably March 26. He does think most residents believe the city’s police force needs to move out of its tiny City Hall headquarters.
“I told the chief last night I viewed it as a speed bump, that everybody realizes we need something,” Benton said.
City Manger Mel Hawley said that might be the case, but that aldermen should take their time and analyze a setback he called “a statistical tie.”
“Obviously this is an absolutely split vote. Certainly when you have 292 people voting yes, I think there is probably a short list … of reasons why they voted yes,” Hawley said. “Relative to the 302 who voted no, I think there’s a relatively long list of reasons why they voted no.”
Aldermen had asked for a $1.85 million bond to fund a 5,960-square-foot, 20-room building, to be built on the 0.75-acre former Vergennes Auto Sales property and possibly some adjacent land.
The bond would have funded the land purchase, site development costs, and design and permitting expenses, as well as building construction and fit-up costs.
City officials said most the bond could have added to the city tax rate would be 7.5 cents a year at the height of annual repayments. Aldermen were also considering devoting non-tax revenue to the project that they said could lower that amount to 6.0 cents, or $120 in new annual taxes on a $200,000 home.
Hawley said those in favor probably thought the building met all of the department’s current and foreseeable needs, and approved of the location.
He said many of those who opposed it probably objected to the overall scale of the building or some elements that residents questioned during forums, such as fitness and/or locker rooms, a dispatching center, several offices or multiple holding cells.
“I think there are people that recognize we need to get the police department out of City Hall, but feel the 6,000-square-foot building is too big,” he said. “I suspect that could be the case.”
But he also said others might have been worried about higher taxes, the location and/or land costs, or believed the city had “more pressing needs.”
“I would love to know, and speak to the 302 people who voted against it,” Hawley said. “We need to find out specifically the reasons behind the no votes.”
If size is the problem, Hawley said aldermen could choose to “reduce the size of the building” or “try to provide more education as to … why this layout was the right decision.”
Hawley said he would feel as conflicted about the result if it had won narrowly, and he will recommend to aldermen that they choose a path that develops consensus about a new approach.
“It is not healthy for a community to be split on an issue this important,” he said.
Benton said his first instinct was to move quickly, but he agreed that aldermen should first do some homework.
“If you’ve missed this year’s construction season and do something at next year’s town meeting … that probably does make sense,” he said.
Benton said he agreed with Hawley, who also brought up the possibility of a Town Meeting 2013 vote, that a stronger consensus was preferable — something he foresees for a proposal down the line.  
This is just kind of what you don’t want … We have support, and you have dissension,” he said. “I think people will support it, but they spoke, and we need to listen.”
One concern Benton has is whether the location will still be available in 2014, and he will bring up whether residents back the location and if a separate vote on buying the land is a good idea.
“Is waiting a year going to jeopardize purchasing that parcel?” he said.
One thing is clear: Tuesday’s result complicated city officials’ decision-making on the police station.
“It’s exactly what I didn’t want to see happen,” Hawley said, “to see the vote be that close.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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