Brandon under presssure to locate new town office space

BRANDON — Two years, two months and numerous mistakes have landed the town of Brandon back to square one without office space and now, a deadline to find some, fast.
The long-overdue renovation of the town offices on Center Street ground to a halt last week after the Vermont League of Cities and Towns settled the town’s claim on the building at a much lower payout than anticipated.
Selectboard Chair Devon Fuller announced at an Oct. 28 meeting that he and Town Manager Robin Bennett met with builders from the McKernon Group, which had contracted to do the renovation, to go over the numbers based on the insurance settlement.
“McKernon retracted their bid, so at this point, we’re back to square one,” Fuller said. “We have less than half of what the initial bid was for.”
The town has been operating out of the Brandon Fire Station since a flood caused by Tropical Storm Irene swept through the downtown on Aug. 28, 2011. Although the town office building was flooded, an inspection revealed minimal damage to the bones of the structure.
Regardless, partitions and walls were stripped out of the building roughly six months after the flood and the town saw the situation as an opportunity for a long overdue renovation to the 150-year-old building. Now, that move has cost the town the ability to move back into the building, as the insurance claim was not nearly enough to do the job.
And in a perfect storm of obstacles, the fire department issued a letter to the town dated Oct. 23, demanding that the town vacate the fire station on or before Dec. 31.
“Many promises have been made about a time frame … and to date we are still at a virtual standstill,” Fire Chief Roman Wdowiak wrote.
Wdowiak cited the ongoing inconvenience of lost classroom space for firefighters in the building, who must use the truck bays for regular training in CPR and other certification skills. He also requested “just and equitable compensation be made to the fire district for added expenses and lost revenue that have been incurred by the fire district as a result of the town offices being housed at the fire station.”
The fire chief has also requested that the town return the fire station to the condition it was before the town moved in.
“This decision is one that has been difficult to make,” Wdowiak wrote, adding that it was made to ensure that the department “can serve and protect the people of Brandon.”
Based on the imminent deadline to vacate the fire station, coupled with the undersized insurance settlement, Fuller offered three options for the town to take regarding the town offices:
• Take the money the town received, roughly $160,000, and use as much volunteer labor as possible to renovate the town offices to where the officials can move back into the building.
•  Vacate the town office building permanently and find another building or space to lease long-term, possibly with an option to buy.
•  Lease another building and go to the voters in March to bond for the money needed to renovate the old town office building, which would cost roughly $400,000.
Bennett said she would check, but she believes the town can use the $160,000 insurance money any way it sees fit. Fuller said the town would use the settlement money to pay for the lease on another space, so no money would come out of the general fund.
The selectboard unanimously authorized Bennett to look for a new rental space for town office staff, and to include the possibility of the Brandon Town Hall. The board is hoping that can be done by the board’s next scheduled meeting on Nov. 13 at 7 p.m. The town owns the town hall outright, and the newly renovated and now heated lower level could house town staff at no cost to the town.
But Kathy Rausenberger, treasurer for the Friends of the Brandon Town Hall, reminded the board that various parties and groups have rented the space for the coming weeks for activities including a wedding reception, a state water meeting, and the annual Moonlight Madness holiday shopping event in December.
What really stands out in the Brandon Town Office saga are the mistakes made leading up to the current crisis. It came to light at the Oct. 14 selectboard meeting that former town manager Keith Arlund did not even file a claim with VLCT on the property until October 2012 — 14 months after the flood — which delayed the insurer’s evaluation of the claim. Now, it seems that the clearing out of the town office space increased the renovation price tag.
Neighboring property owners Jim and Nancy Leary have been pressing the board for answers as to why these missteps were allowed and who is responsible.
“If not for the demolition done in February 2012, could the town have moved back into the town offices?” Jim Leary asked Fuller at this past Monday’s meeting.
“Yes,” Fuller said. “I don’t see any reason why not.”
Selectwoman Maria Ammatuna said she has been researching what led up to the demolition. She noted in the selectboard minutes during February 2012 that Arlund said it “was a good time to update the building.” She also discovered a purchase order for $6,900 signed by Arlund and authorizing the demolition at the town office building. Normally, the town manager is only authorized to sign off on purchase orders up to $5,000, and must have selectboard approval for purchases above $5,000. Ammatuna said she was still trying to determine the facts around that purchase order.
It was then-selectboard Chair Richard Baker who orchestrated the demolition inside the town office building, but he contends the board was fully aware of the process.
Regardless, Fuller acknowledged that mistakes were made.
“I think the town office demolition was a mistake without a doubt, and now the board and the new town manager will have to figure out how to move forward,” Fuller said. “I was on that board and I don’t know how to hold accountable who made that decision. We wouldn’t be in this predicament at all (if the demolition had not happened). We had management that was not on the ball. We went above and beyond to find a town manager who can do the job. I wish we could go back in time, but we can’t.”

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