City and St. Paul’s Church eye sidewalk effort

VERGENNES — At its meeting last Tuesday the Vergennes City Council continued to discuss with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church representatives how much of the tab the city should pick up for a Designated Downtown grant to replace the Park Street sidewalk.
That narrow sidewalk, in only fair condition and barely wide enough for two people to walk side by side, runs past the city bandstand on one side and along church property on the other.
At the council’s Feb. 13 meeting the council moved to jointly apply with the church for a $46,250 grant to pay for half the cost of replacing the narrow, deteriorating sidewalk and the retaining wall that holds back the church’s lawn. All of the work will be done on city property, officials said.
The council agreed to pay for $23,125, or 25 percent of the project, from the city’s Water Tower Fund and front the remaining $23,125 to the church, with two understandings: that the church would pay the city back over five years, and that further talks could be held about funding terms.
City Manager Mel Hawley told the council that the Water Tower Fund, replenished steadily by cellphone companies who pay to place broadcasting equipment on the city’s former water tower, currently contains about $250,000.
That grant-funding template follows that of several downtown projects in which business and property owners have pitched in 25 percent for work that has typically included building handicap access platforms for their commercial ventures.
In this case, church representatives Sarah Stroup and Sarah Cowan made the case the city should pay 50 percent because the work is entirely on city property with no direct financial benefit to the church, and that the church is planning to spend several times as much as $23,000 to improve its lawn next to the sidewalk into a park-like area to which the public will be welcome. The church vestry asked them to seek city funding for the improvements to city property, they said.
Stroup noted the sidewalk work fit the definition of what the Water Tower Fund should be used for, and said the church’s plans for its lawn were “an exceptional project” that did not fit the template the council was applying.
“Our private space already serves as a public space,” Stroup said. “As a church one of our missions is community service.”
Council members were hesitant to treat the church differently than other entities, however. Alderman Matt Chabot noted there were other stretches of sidewalk that also required attention and said he had heard from residents who questioned the arrangement, and Alderman Mark Koenig said a different arrangement could set a precedent that “muddies the water.”
Mayor Renny Perry, however, took a different tack.
“Compared to some of the other projects this is different,” Perry said, noting the others offered “commercial value related to doing the streetscape,” and the fact the church is offering “more park space for the community.”
Perry added the work would have to be done eventually with or without church participation or the grant.
“At some point in time the city would have to rebuild it,” he said.
In an interview the next day Perry said he would vote for a motion that would call for the city to pay the full 50 percent.
Hawley added there had been “a number of exceptions” made in the past to the 25-percent share template, including for a smaller sidewalk project done partly in front of another city church that was not asked to chip in.
Council members softened their position as the discussion went along. Koenig suggested the council could consider asking St. Paul’s for a smaller share, and Deputy Mayor Jeff Fritz suggested “more amenable terms,” such as a 10-year payback.
Council member Lynn Donnelly noted the sidewalk’s strategic downtown location in also suggesting more favorable terms.
“That’s an important section of our sidewalk,” Donnelly said.
The council members and church representatives agreed to move forward with the grant application as described in the Feb. 13 motion and to meet again to talk over the financing.
“We can revisit this at any time,” Perry said. “We can change the formula later on.”
In other business, council members:
•  Agreed to handle the recent complaint filed by a downtown business owner against City Manager Mel Hawley and City Clerk Joan Devine as part of the employees’ annual review in April. Mayor Renny Perry said the complainant had agreed that was an appropriate way to handle the matter.
•  Approved Hawley’s request that he be allowed to spend up to $10,000 from the Water Tower Fund to complete renovating the former police station squad room into a city hall conference room, a project that includes incorporating the hallway behind the lobby doors into the larger space. Those doors will also be replaced by energy-efficient glass doors.
•  Unanimously agreed that Perry’s continuing to remain as president of the Vergennes Partnership did not pose a conflict with his service as mayor. Perry said he was willing to step away from the partnership if council members believed a conflict of interest existed. Perry said he would continue to recuse himself from any decisions that had a direct impact on the partnership, such as funding requests.
•  Changed the term “senior alderman” to “deputy mayor,” to better reflect the duties of the position, now held by Fritz.
•  Held a brief public hearing on the $500,000 fire truck bond vote that will be on the March 6 ballot. Hawley estimated the bond, if approved, will add 0.2 cent to the Vergennes, Panton and Waltham tax rates in 2019-2020 and about 0.67 cent in 2020-2021, and then slowly decline from there over the life of a 20-year bond. The impact on the Ferrisburgh rate will be about half that, he said.  

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