City Council eyes $1.45 million bond for new city police HQ

VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen moved close on Tuesday to setting a May vote on a $1.45 million bond to pay for a 4,611-square-foot North Main Street police station.
That plan would remove more than 1,300 square feet — a drive-in evidence processing area, offices for the force’s sergeant and detective, and fitness and intake/dispatch rooms — from the proposed $1.85 million, 5,940-square-foot station that Vergennes voters defeated on Town Meeting Day, 302-292. It would remain on the same site.
The new plan is not final yet, however, as Mayor Bill Benton said aldermen still want feedback before April 9, when they will almost certainly adopt a warning for a May vote.
“From my point of view, I want to hear everything you have to say. This is a very preliminary drawing, but it is a step in the right direction,” Benton told the dozen-and-a-half citizens who attended Tuesday’s meeting.
Building a smaller structure would create about $300,000 in savings, both in construction and land purchase costs, city officials said, meaning the total cost of the project would be $1.55 million. City Manager Mel Hawley said a smaller footprint means the city will not have to buy extra land from a neighboring property owner.
The council approved Alderman Renny Perry’s motion for a smaller station that also included taking $100,000 from the city’s Water Tower Fund to lower the cost to taxpayers. That fund is fed by cell phone companies that pay to hang broadcast equipment on the city’s former water tower behind city hall.
Hawley said the original $1.85 million project, including ongoing maintenance, would have added about $75 a year in taxes per $100,000 of assessed value during a 20-year bond payment schedule.
On Wednesday, he said a $1.45 million bond would lower that figure to roughly $59 a year per $100,000 of assessed value.
A May vote will allow aldermen to keep their preferred site, a small parcel that is the former home of Vergennes Auto Sales. Owner Bruce Barry has agreed to sell the land to the city for $240,000, but said after the March vote he would not wait forever.
“He told me that waiting until next March would not be acceptable … He would do something with the property before then,” Hawley said at the Tuesday meeting. “I think he would like a definitive answer tomorrow morning when and if there would be another vote.”
Benton left the door open for more public feedback before aldermen adopt a warning on April 9, and Perry’s motion simply asked that a warning be ready to sign on that date. 
“I want time to communicate the project,” Benton said.
City officials have discussed the close vote since March 5, and Benton said they decided scaling back was the best option, with the question being how far.
“I think we wanted to find out why people didn’t support it … if it was size, cost, layout,” Benton said. “We thought it would not be in the best interest of the city to put it out for a revote.”
Those in attendance on Tuesday who spoke were supportive of the police department and the project. Police Chief George Merkel was asked if the department could continue to function effectively in the smaller building.
“I think this is a workable facility. Will this still meet the operational needs of our force? The answer is yes,” Merkel said. “I will go on record as saying this is an excellent plan.”
Public works head Jim Larrow wanted to be sure that the force would not outgrow the building. But Merkel said its size would be fine as long as it is equipped properly, while Hawley said the structure is designed to handle 10 full-time officers and allows for expansion from its current strength of six full- and four part-time members.
“At the end of the day, this is a small department,” he said. “This isn’t Burlington. This is Vergennes, Vermont.”
Before aldermen made their decision, questions turned to communicating the benefits of the plan.
Former alderman Peter Garon suggested adding opponents of the plan to the council’s police station committee, a suggestion that the council welcomed and later acted upon. Garon said doing so would help reach out to and educate those who didn’t understand the unique needs for a police station, such as locker rooms.
Merkel agreed, pointing out in response to those who didn’t understand why there were locker rooms that officers can be covered with blood, urine and even fleas in the course of a day’s work, and it’s unfair not to allow them to change before going home to their families.
“The more people are informed, the more palatable it’s going to be,” Merkel said.
Planning commission chairman Shannon Haggett suggested the council use social media and other tools to broadcast a stronger message before May.
“I heard some pretty wacky reasons people were saying no,” Haggett said. “I would urge the city council to find some creative ways to get the word out.”
Former alderwoman Christine Collette suggested that both the old and new plans be put on the ballot. But Hawley responded that although 292 people had said yes and he hoped they would again, that there was too much divided opinion to return to the original proposal.
Hawley said after the vote he reflected back on the informational meetings that preceded it and realized there had been questions about the scope and some of the specifics of the project, concerns to which city officials had not paid enough attention.
In retrospect, he said, the mixed result should not have been a surprise, and now it was time to adjust the plan to take into account those objections.
“I don’t think we listened to them,” Hawley said. “I’ll tell you what I did after the vote. I took my pencil out and started X-ing out rooms.”
Aldermen briefly debated whether to buy just the land alone or to schedule a vote on the entire project in May, and whether to devote the $100,000 from the Tower Fund to the project’s up-front cost.
Hawley urged the council to act.
“If you don’t have a vote by the end of May, there will not be a (new) police station in Vergennes by the end of 2013,” Hawley said.
Perry agreed and made his motion, which was approved unanimously.
“We can have two information meetings before the vote and just go for it,” Perry said. “There were a lot of people who voted for it.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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