City losing its playground grant

VERGENNES — Vergennes officials on Wednesday learned the city will not receive an extension on its $21,000 state grant to support an East Street preschool playground, news that effectively pulls the plug on a project that generated opposition among neighbors and mixed reviews from other city residents.
The city had already received one extension from the Department of Buildings & General Services that required that work on the $42,000, quarter-acre project, proposed for city land next to the municipal pool, be under way by June.
But earlier this month the Vergennes City Council had learned that an important source of volunteer labor — project designer David Raphael’s University of Vermont class — was being withdrawn by Raphael because of his concerns about cost, timing and citizen opposition.
And a project neighbor, John O’Donnell, sued the city this spring claiming aldermen failed to honor the 303-220 Town Meeting Day vote against the playground based on a citizen petition.
Aldermen considered that petition misleading because it did not mention the grant funding, but rather only referred to the $21,000 aldermen planned to pay toward the project from the city’s Water Tower Fund.
City council members also learned this week that the city has a June 12 conference related to the lawsuit, a timetable that complicates efforts to find alternative volunteer work.
Given all the factors, Mayor Bill Benton said on Wednesday that at least for the time being city officials have no choice but to walk away from the project.   
“We will take stock of the situation, decide what our options are, and if we want to proceed with another application in the fall, we can,” Benton said.
The denial of the extension offered Vergennes some hope of future funding and also calmed fears that the city would be unable to obtain other grants because of its failure to take advantage of this grant.
In a statement, state official Chrissy Gilhuly stated the grant committee “has denied the request for an extension and asks that if the June 30 deadline cannot be met, the grant money be returned to the Building Communities Grant Fund. The Committee recognizes the value of the project and would welcome a future grant application without prejudice. We will be accepting a new round of applications for consideration in October, 2015 — which may give you the time needed to get all local issues resolved and the ability to move forward.”
Benton added that Alderman Joe Klopfenstein said at Tuesday’s council meeting he had received an email from Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, with further assurances the city would not be penalized in the future.
“Joe got an email from Diane Lanpher saying she had spoken to the committee members for this particular grant source, and they told her in no uncertain terms that we did not have a black eye,” Benton said. “They understand that we had very unique circumstances, and they would be more than happy to review any other grant application.”
Aldermen on Tuesday also discussed tapping the Watershed Fund, which is intended specifically for recreation projects, for the playground, rather than the Water Tower Fund, which supports general improvements to the downtown area.
Benton said that and other options could be on the table in the future, but more importantly officials would take a step back “for a few months, anyway” and hope for a consensus to develop, something he initially thought had already occurred when aldermen agreed to reduce the playground’s footprint by about 40 percent.
“Now it’s obviously going down the tubes, the project as it exists, unfortunately,” he said. “We’ll keep the plan. We’ll keep the idea. We’ll search other funding sources and maybe try and do it in the future. But when, I don’t know.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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