Proposed city playground now in jeopardy

VERGENNES — The proposed East Street preschool playground appeared to be on life support after Tuesday’s Vergennes City Council meeting.
Project designer David Raphael of Middlebury landscape design firm LandWorks told the aldermen on Tuesday he could no longer continue to devote time to the project, and that because of needed sitework it appeared even the scaled-down version approved by aldermen this winter could not be built for its $42,000 price tag.
And that price tag, Raphael said, assumed the students in his spring-semester class at the University of Vermont could donate project labor.
Because of project delays, the most recent of which is a lawsuit filed by a playground neighbor related to a Town Meeting Day vote against the project, Raphael said it is too late in the semester for the students to begin the work.
“The opportunity has passed,” Raphael said, adding, “The class can no longer participate,” and “Our cost estimate is no longer valid.”
City Manager Mel Hawley said about $5,000 of the $42,000 — half to be paid from the city’s Water Tower Fund and half to be funded by a Department of Buildings and General Services grant — has already been spent.
That leaves $37,000 to build the playground, Hawley said, and Raphael said the latest estimate showed that even with his class donating labor the project cost came in at $37,000 — without bidding out sitework to fix drainage issues.
“When that estimate came in I just thought, ‘We’re in trouble,’” said Raphael, who added that he and his company have spent more hours than expected on the project and that “a cloud now hangs over the project” because of opposition.
Complicating matters for the council are not only the lawsuit, based on the 303-220 Town Meeting Day vote against the playground (one based on a petition that aldermen consider misleading because it does not mention the grant funding, only the Water Tower Fund), but also a June grant deadline.
The Department of Buildings and General Services granted Vergennes an extension on the grant, but with the understanding that the project be “well under way” by June 30, a deadline that aldermen and Raphael said is no longer possible to meet.
But aldermen were not willing, at least on Tuesday, to abandon the playground.
Senior Alderman Renny Perry said the city should make every effort to retain the grant because Vergennes risks not receiving future grants if it walks away from this one.
“I’m really worried about the future consequences of turning that grant back,” Perry said.
Perry also suggested that if the city were to receive an extension from the state, other volunteers could build the project, including experts who could finish the design for the central boat structure and do the sitework.
“We should try to find another way to salvage the project,” Perry said.
City Manager Mel Hawley said the city doesn’t “have total flexibility” on the project because the council approved only a $42,000 project in December. He did suggest using Watershed Fund cash instead of the Water Tower Fund, because doing so would render moot the lawsuit and Town Meeting Day vote.
Still, Alderman and recreation committee chairman Joe Klopfenstein said he was also hopeful that volunteers could be found at that price level.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt we could get volunteer labor,” Klopfenstein said.
Ultimately, the council told Hawley to find out if another extension was possible and to learn what the timing of a court resolution might be — aldermen expect the lawsuit to be dismissed quickly because the Town Meeting Day vote was advisory, not binding.
On Wednesday morning, Hawley said he had learned the grant-funding committee would meet on Monday, and would consider the city’s extension request then.  
“Their committee will take that up on Monday,” Hawley said. “I would say the city council will have a decision by the time they meet on the 28th.”
Hawley also planned to get more information about the court schedule from city attorney Jim Ouimette.
Mayor Bill Benton said he hoped the council could make an informed decision on how to proceed on April 28, its next meeting.
“In two weeks, we’ll know more about where we stand,” he said.
Aldermen also discussed briefly the related question, at Benton’s suggestion, of whether some Water Tower Fund appropriations, if large enough, should be subject to voter approval and not solely at the council’s discretion.
“Say, if the expenditure exceeds $50,000, $30,000, should there be a public vote on it,” Benton said.
Aldermen generally agreed the council should retain control of the fund, which is fed by cell phone companies who pay to hang broadcast equipment on the city’s former water tower behind City Hall.
Perry said if voters do not agree with financial decisions made by their elected representatives, residents can vote council members out of office.
“It is our responsibility to do that when we are elected,” Perry said. “I don’t think that we should water down the form of government we’ve had here since we’ve started.”
Klopfenstein said he agreed with Perry, but wanted to make sure residents understood and had a chance to comment on council decisions.
“I feel people should have the ability to have some sort of input,” he said.
There was some discussion of having formal public hearings on major withdrawals from the fund, but Benton noted that all such decisions are already publicized in the council agenda and in the press.
Hawley added that the council last year adopted a Water Tower Fund policy that gives aldermen financial discretion, while outlining how much principal must stay in the fund.
And that policy, Hawley said, was only adopted after a “very public process as to how the city council was going to handle that fund.”
Aldermen said they would be as transparent as possible when discussing potential uses of the fund.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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