Editorial: Crux of Middlebury vote is town’s tax capacity, not its buildings

In two weeks, on May 13, Middlebury residents will again vote on whether to support a bond for $6.5 million (of which Middlebury College will pay $4.5 million) to build a new municipal building and recreational facility. The project, studied and debated in various forms since 2011, will raze the existing municipal building and gymnasium, create a park in that space, build a new town office building adjacent to the Ilsley Library, and build a new recreation facility off Cross Street between the Middlebury Union High and Middle Schools where the now-condemned American Legion building sits.
It is an ambitious, bold and exciting project that delivers a $7.5-plus million value to Middlebury residents for a net cost to taxpayers of about $2 million. The $1 million difference between the $6.5 million bond and $7.5 project cost is because the college has also agreed to spend another million dollars at its expense to raze the current municipal building and gym, and move the Osborne House to another downtown location.
That project was approved 915-798 in a Town Meeting Day vote, and is being reconsidered by petition. Voters will cast ballots either for or against what will be called Article 1, formerly called Article 6 in the Town Meeting vote.
A ‘yes’ vote casts a ballot in favor of the $6.5 million bond, and upholds the previous vote to complete the proposed project.
A ‘no’ vote rejects the project, and, if successful in gathering enough votes to vacate the prior decision, would mean town residents would start anew in determining how to resolve the decaying condition of the current municipal building. It’s a question the town has pondered since an earlier vote on the issue in 1994. (See story on Page 1A.)
Much has been written on the issue, including a lengthy story in today’s issue. But two developments are new to the conversation and the proposed project.
First, college officials agreed to deed the entire 1.4 acres it owns behind Ilsley Library to the creek to the town. That allows the town to decide how to use it for expanded parking and/or commercial space to create greater commercial density. The land is valued about at $1 million.
Second, the college has pledged additional support, if needed, to make the municipal office building and recreational facility more energy efficient. As President Ron Liebowitz said in comments in today’s edition, the college will help the town toward its goal of a Net Zero energy efficient building, noting it would be “penny wise and pound foolish” to do otherwise.
Along with the college’s financial help, Efficiency Vermont has formalized a Net Zero Energy Building Program that will provide additional financial support if projects produce as much energy as they consume. In combination, the result will likely yield a net-zero energy efficient building that costs more than projected, but which will not cost Middlebury residents any more than the $2 million proposed.
Both developments make what had been a good project even better and address some of the drawbacks opponents had previously noted.
As Middlebury residents contemplate how to vote on Article 1, it’s helpful to break the issue out into three considerations:
• Price-to-value: that is, what the cost to taxpayers is for the value gained. In this case, taxpayers get two new, energy-efficient buildings and a town park for $2 million in tax dollars, compared to the $7.5 million project cost (plus the additional financial support noted above for energy-efficiency), plus the $1 million in donated downtown land.
• Alternatives: If residents reject Article 1, by voting ‘no’ in sufficient numbers, the town starts over in its quest to solve the current problems with the municipal building and gymnasium.
The current process began in 2011 with the appointment of three committees to study different aspects of the problem and propose solutions. Those committees spent the better part of 18 months holding open meetings before reaching the final proposal. Even then, the vote was held nine months later.
Some opponents of the project have argued the proposal was not open enough and rushed; the logical conclusion would be that an even longer period of time would be set aside to do it all over again. But even if it were the same time period (benefitting from what has already been learned), that’s another three years out (2017), which will add significantly to the bottom line of whatever project emerges. In the meantime, significant stopgap measures may need to be imposed to keep the building in reasonable shape to occupy, while hopefully avoiding major problems with decrepit plumbing, electrical wiring and ventilation systems.
Whatever the alternative might be, previous studies suggest the price tag will be $4 million to $6 million and up to renovate the municipal office building and gym onsite — and that still leaves the town with a 100-year-old building that will not be as energy efficient as the proposed new buildings.
• The ‘bigger picture’: Despite all the focus on the town office project, it is not the most important issue of the day.
Far more important to the town’s future health and economy is an honest appraisal of the town’s desirability as an economic hub and its ability to attract or create higher-paying jobs to replace those manufacturing jobs lost in the previous 10-15 years.
More important than an energy-efficient building is a town that has the flexibility to adapt to the fast-paced global economy and seize job opportunities as they arise.
More important than location of the town hall is having the tax capacity to encourage affordable housing so wage earners can live near their work.
More important than squabbling over a few lost parking spaces is reaching out to young entrepreneurs to help make Middlebury an exciting place in which to launch start-ups and grow those businesses locally.
More important than worrying whether moving the Osborne House and razing the existing municipal building will be a few dollars more than the projected $1 million, is having the flexibility to help Porter Hospital stay strong and vital in light of the uncertainty coming down the health care reform highway.
To be able to do these things, and others, the town’s tax capacity cannot be maxed to the limit. Middlebury, which has one of the highest municipal tax rates in the state, is close to that limit now. If the town rejects the approved bond vote, it’s a sure bet the college will not make another offer two or three years down the road when the town might be ready to make another proposal. The likely result is taxpayers will pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into an old and broken down building to keep it operating (while we conduct more studies and engage in more conversation), eventually significant renovations will be mandated to meet state code at a tax hike of 6 cents or more for 30 years, and bitterness will reign over a botched opportunity passed by in 2014. (The idea that harmony will be attained with another two or three years of study is a romanticized notion, at best.)
As much as the emotional yin and yang of this vote concerns the physical and geographic presence of the proposed buildings, the real crux of the issue is about how to commit the town’s tax capacity wisely today so that we have maximum flexibility in the coming years. That’s worth pondering between now and May 13.
Angelo S. Lynn

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