Vergennes to vote on a new police station on Tuesday

VERGENNES — Vergennes voters will decide on Tuesday whether to approve the city council’s proposed $1.45 million bond to fund a new 4,611-square-foot police station on North Main Street.
Residents may cast their ballots on the proposed bond at the city’s Green Street fire station from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. They will also join other Addison Northwest Supervisory Union voters on the 14th in deciding a $600,000 loan proposal to fund new roofing for Vergennes Union High School (see related story).
Fifteen residents showed up this past Tuesday at the fire station for an information meeting on a proposed station that would be about 1,300 square feet smaller than the structure aldermen proposed on Town Meeting Day.
That $1.85 million plan was narrowly defeated, and aldermen responded by downsizing the building. City officials approved a new design that cuts out offices for the department’s sergeant and detective, fitness and intake rooms, and a drive-in evidence-processing garage. The function of the latter feature can be handled by the building’s sally port, they said.
The station retains what Bread Loaf architect Chris Huston said on Tuesday was a central and crucial feature: “secure and separate areas for victims and suspects” that will ensure victims’ privacy, and safety for victims, suspects and police.
Police Chief George Merkel told the gathering he supported the redesign.
“The guys are doing great work,” Merkel said. “This is the kind of facility we need to do that.”
The building’s estimated construction cost is $1.55 million, and aldermen voted to dedicate $100,000 from the city’s Water Tower Fund to lower the tax impact on city residents.
City Manager Mel Hawley said that tax impact in the “worst year” of a 20-year bond would be $59 per $100,000 of assessed value, a figure he said would gradually decline to around $42.
That estimate includes money for building maintenance as well as bond payments, Hawley said.
Hawley and Mayor Bill Benton also noted that not all city taxpayers would feel the brunt of the increase. In a letter addressed to Vergennes citizens, Benton pointed to “Vermont’s homestead property tax income sensitivity program,” which caps property taxes for those with incomes of $47,000 or less at 5 percent of their income.
Hawley said some residents with low property tax rates as well as incomes in that range or lower could still see an increase, but that many property owners with low or moderate incomes would not pay more for the police station.
“This project actually is free to a lot of people,” he said.
For others, it could mean $118 in additional taxes on a $200,000 home, or $177 more on a $300,000 home.
The new station would include on its secure “operations” area the sally port, into which a cruiser can drive and unload suspects for questioning and/or detention; two holding cells; two interview rooms, which Merkel said are important to allow police to interview suspects separately; a booking room; a juvenile holding room; and evidence storage. The sally port will also be used to store any cars being held as evidence, replacing the drive-in area that was removed.
The administration area will include a lobby, a patrol room with work space for the detective and sergeant, men’s and women’s locker rooms, a multi-purpose room that will be used for training and as a break room, an office for the chief, a witness interview room, a technology room, and several storage rooms, one for required records and another for weapons.
No one there on Tuesday quibbled with Huston’s assessment that the current 740-square-foot City Hall station is unacceptable due to inadequate separation of suspects and victims/witnesses, undesirable interactions between theater patrons and suspects, and lack of storage, holding cells, bathrooms and other necessities.
“There are safety problems around the basic aspects of police operations,” Huston said.
Some questions did crop up about the new proposal.
Resident Nelson Sears wondered about the size of the multi-purpose and patrol rooms. Sears said he was satisfied by the answers given by Merkel that the multi-purpose room, among other things, could be used for training that would save time and money, while the patrol room had been enlarged to make room for the detective and sergeant, and could also be used for operation centers during major cases such as the department’s four major recent heroin busts.
Resident Cheryl Brinkman asked if solar or other forms of alternative energy had been considered. Huston said the scale of the building and its limited hot water use made the projected payoff not economical for geothermal or solar units during initial construction.
Benton said city officials would consider adding solar in the future if the payoff was better.
“If something comes along, you know Mel, he’ll save money on anything,” Benton said. “I think we’re all open to that.”
Resident and former alderman Peter Garon asked how firm the $1.55 million construction estimate was.
“Nothing is guaranteed,” Benton said. “But this is a pretty simple building … Mel and I are confident, and Chris is confident.”
Hawley added that if costs did run high on the project — which if approved could be completed late in 2013 or early in 2014 — aldermen would have to find money elsewhere or come up with savings.
“One thing that is fixed is the bond (amount),” Hawley said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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