Aldermen explore extra space in city hall

VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen at their Oct. 28 meeting looked at five different possibilities for an updated and/or reconfigured city hall first floor, all drawn up by architect and former council member Christopher Pettibon.
The council is considering how best to use the roughly 800 square feet recently vacated by the city’s police department. It consists of a the former patrol room, the largest space; the chief’s office; and a smaller holding room off the chief’s office. Aldermen could pay for a project by tapping the city’s Water Tower Fund, which is fed by cell phone companies that pay to hang equipment on the city’s former water tower.
The Friends of the Vergennes Opera House organization has expressed an interest in some or all of the two smaller rooms for office space and ticket sales. The second-story theater lacks room for both those needs.
Mayor Bill Benton said Pettibon provided aldermen with a variety of options, although all left the chief’s office mostly untouched and focused on the remaining spaces.
“The scope of each project was different, from minimal to extensive,” Benton said.
Benton’s sense is that the council might choose a middle course.
“My take on the discussion from the board is we aren’t going to go crazy,” Benton said. “We might go beyond cosmetic improvements.”
Options include, he said:
•  Turning the patrol room into a council meeting room. Aldermen have met in the basement of the Green Street fire department in recent years.
•  Incorporating the hallway between the patrol room and the city clerk’s office into the clerk’s office.
•  Creating more office space for potential future employees by linking and renovating two rooms, one behind the vault and one behind City Manager Mel Hawley’s office.
Benton noted that Hawley now wears three hats, as a zoning administrator and assessor as well as city manager, and that new space would create work stations for assessors, a different part-time zoning administrator and possibly a future part-time recreation director.
“We need to create at least some space for some of those different people if and when they come on board,” Benton said.
Work could be done in phases, with the first phase focusing on the area that now includes the clerk’s office and the former patrol room, Benton said, with a future second phase consisting of creating the newer, larger office space to the rear.
How to use the chief’s office remains in play, Benton said, with some mixed feelings on the board. Even some who back giving the space to the opera house are reluctant just to roll it into the theater’s current 25-year lease, saying that unforeseen needs could lead to the city wanting the space.
Benton said none of the current options really affect the space in which the theater backers are interested, and aldermen can take their time in working out a new lease for the theater.
“The chief’s office in all of the plans doesn’t really change,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing that needs to be discussed further.”
Any change in the Vergennes Opera House lease, like any other real estate deal aldermen make, is subject to voter approval and would be on the March ballot, Benton said.
Before then, even by the end of 2014, aldermen hope to have a plan ready for the rest of city hall’s first floor that will allow work to begin this winter. Aldermen will study the plans, he said, and revisit the question next month.
“We want to have a plan in place that we can have a discussion on and vote on and make a decision,” Benton said.
 At one point, the question of whether the city should impose a local option tax — one option would be to add a penny to the state sales tax to items sold within city limits, for example — was on the Tuesday agenda.
But Benton said he was out of town when it was placed on the agenda, and he removed it when he returned because not enough research has been done to show whether such a tax could have a positive impact.
Some aldermen said they have heard residents and merchants are concerned the tax would be a drag on sales, while Benton said the positives could be revenue to support an economic development employee, to offset the cost of the new police station, or to “put toward other projects we can’t do.”
Aldermen approved having Hawley work with the city’s economic development task force to study the issue and report back to the council. Such a tax could only take effect if backed by residents in a vote and after public discussion, Benton said, which can best happen with more data in hand. 
“It will be coming to the public soon, but I want to be sure our ducks are in order,” he said. 

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