Editorial: Facts a casualty in town office building discussion

As with any controversial issue, facts are a casualty of passionate debate. That’s frequently been the case with the discussion over the proposed bond for a new municipal building in Middlebury.
Let’s clarify a few points that we’ve seen distorted in the past few weeks:
• First, it’s not accurate to suggest that the selectboard’s proposal came about after a “secret meeting” with college officials by a few selectboard members without any prior opportunity for public input. That’s the take on the matter by several candidates running for the selectboard, a myth made popular by folks opposing the proposal because they want to make it seem as if the public had no voice in the matter.
The fact is that the final appeal to the college came only after two years of committee work by the steering committee, nine months of meetings by a separate finance committee, as well as several months of study by a separate committee looking into the renovation of the gymnasium. All told more than 25 town residents met during that period to figure out a way to renovate or rebuild on the existing site in a way that was affordable to taxpayers.
Those committees came to the determination last spring that the total cost to rebuild on the existing site would cost somewhere in the ballpark of $6 million to $8 million, and that was not an affordable option for taxpayers. Because no other funding or grants could be found, and renovating was not the preferred option, a few selectboard members approached the college with a final appeal: we need help or we have to scratch the current effort. That group spent a few weeks working out a proposal, which was then immediately brought forward as an option and presented last April to town residents for community discussion.
At the outset, the selectboard thought six months of community discussions over a specific plan would be ample. In hindsight, that was not enough to answer those opponents who would try to sabotage the proposal for every other reason other than the proposal’s merits.
The important fact to correct is that this has not been a discussion of just nine months, but rather of the past two consecutive years — and all of those committee meetings were open to the public. To say this discussion has been rushed, is to ignore the first 18 months of community fact-finding and input.
What is true is that the selectboard did rush to pick a contractor this past summer and then rushed the project too quickly in an effort to save taxpayers’ money (bidding in the winter rather than spring-summer could save several hundred thousand dollars in construction costs, according to the project managers.)
• Second, opponents claim that it would be a violation of the town plan to move the municipal building across the street. We disagree. In several passages the current town plan suggests that the current building could be renovated (which would obviously be on its current site) or rebuilt in a central downtown site. What’s clear is that the municipal building should be kept in a downtown location, but we have yet to find any definitive language (including the language cited by opponents) that says a new building would have to be built exactly on the current spot. Admittedly, the language is ambiguous and subject to interpretation.
More importantly, the spirit of those passages is to keep the municipal building in the heart of the downtown, which we wholeheartedly support, not restrict residents from making decisions that comply with the spirit of the plan through a public vote that would have majority support. Town plans are advisory documents, by the way, and are intentionally flexible to accommodate changes within the public body through votes and routine changes every five years. Zoning ordinances, on the other hand, are hard and fast rules. Moving the municipal building to the Osborne site is fully compliant with the town’s zoning ordinances. That’s the better standard by which to base that particular point.
• Third, opponents of the proposal are quick to suggest the current site could be renovated for far less than the estimates provided to the town by Bread Loaf Construction. We agree. Then again, renovation is a subjective term. We could paint the hallways and call it renovation, but would that solve the building’s major failings?
Those residents who have toured the building know the structural challenges are significant: the heating and ventilation systems need replacing; to make the building energy efficient would require significant work; to replace the electrical wiring is no small feat, but how much is absolutely essential?
In short, renovation costs could conceivably run from $1.5 million to Bread Loaf’s estimate of almost $4.5 million, and you’d still have what is an old burned-out shell of a high school building.
What’s needed is a better cost analysis of what residents would get for $1.5 million, $2.5 million, $3.5 million or $4.5 million in renovation expenses; as well as a more complete analysis of why Bread Loaf’s renovation estimates were as high as they were, and why other figures cited by opponents were so low.
What’s known is that the differing figures are not an apples-to-apples comparison, but rather different levels of renovation cited to accomplish different criteria.
Middlebury residents would benefit by knowing what is absolutely essential to stabilize the existing infrastructure, repair the leaky roofs, insulate and tighten the buildings so they’re not so energy inefficient, and what, if any, interior modifications could be made to improve office work flow. Finally, what would it take to add any cosmetic improvements so that residents would be proud to call the renovated building their town hall. The latter may never be the case, but there should be a line item for such improvements just so it compares to the cost of a new building.
• Fourth, it is opinion, not fact, that a new municipal building at the Osborne site would harm library patrons and downtown businesses. That’s the doomsayer’s outlook.
A more optimistic view envisions two municipal structures side-by-side sharing resources and strengthening each other’s service to the community in a more cost-efficient manner. Certainly, that is what makes economic sense and what would be done if the town operated as a business enterprise. Shared public restrooms, shared meeting space, shared parking equates to good economics.
The latest version of the proposed municipal building also has it sitting back on the lot from Main Street, thus affording a better view of the Ilsley Library’s stately façade, adding visual prominence to the entire site.
Parking is always a problem in downtowns and there will be times in which parking could be a tad tighter in the lot behind the Ilsley, but there are also ample solutions if the town chooses to pursue them. Moreover, to be blunt, it is a whiner’s complaint to have to walk a block or two from your parking spot, and instead insist on having parking within 50 feet of the doorway.
• Finally, a note to remember: As David Donoghue said in a story on today’s front page, the college’s offer of $4.5 million, plus up to a million dollars in expenses to raze the current municipal building and turn that area into a park (see accompany story for what that park might entail), is not open-ended.
If town residents defeat the proposal, the college’s offer is off the table. Suggestions by some candidates that they would vote to defeat the current proposal and then go back to the college to solicit money for a different project is fanciful and uninformed speculation. Worse, it is suggesting a scenario that college officials are trying to tell us will in all likelihood not be a reality in the near future.
Opponents of the proposal should be honest in admitting to taxpayers than any renovation or reconstruction will be paid for 100 percent on their own nickel — or make that what we will conservatively suggest is somewhere closer to $3 million to $5 million for a burned out former high school facility. It is simply dishonest to suggest college help would be forthcoming in any other scenario.
Angelo S. Lynn

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