Upgrades coming to Panton’s town hall

PANTON — With a backhoe humming away in the background and after a series of contested votes and lively discussions, about 30 residents at Panton’s Town Meeting on Tuesday morning backed several measures to improve and restore Panton Town Hall, which sat about a mile-and-a-half west of their meeting place, Panton’s town garage.
Next year Panton Town Meeting can return to Panton Town Hall, but on Tuesday residents sat in folding chairs on the garage’s concrete floor because of one of the projects that town hall needs was approved only that morning — a functional handicap ramp to the building’s upstairs meeting space, and handicap-accessible bathrooms.
But even that article drew debate on Tuesday because supporters of more extensive renovations to town hall amended it — only after a vote on whether the amendment was legal — to include kitchen renovations.
“Democracy can be messy,” said Moderator Doug Dows at one point.
“Fireworks,” said another observer about a meeting that saw Dows advise former selectboard chairman John Viskup not to “cross the line” and get personal in criticizing the current board for failing to show, in Viskup’s view, sufficient support for town hall renovations.
One shortcoming Viskup alleged was the selectboard’s decision not to include the kitchen in a warned article. That could have been done, he said, by adding a holding tank to accommodate kitchen wastewater, a measure he said he had confirmed as possible with state officials.
“This is a one-time opportunity,” Viskup said. “Unfortunately it’s been hijacked by the current administration.”
Selectboard member Teresa Smith said board members did not have enough information to evaluate the “impact of a dishwasher and sink” on town hall’s limited septic system in time to warn a kitchen project for town meeting. Nor, Smith said, did the board want to risk leaving taxpayers on the hook for something that could be “far more expensive than we are warning.”
Ultimately, residents backed two articles related to town hall, one that dedicated money from a Fiscal Year 2017 surplus to the effort.
One would move $100,000 from that surplus to the Town Hall Restoration Fund “for the purpose of replacing the existing Americans with Disabilities Act handicapped-accessible ramp, to remove the stage and add a service kitchen and gray water storage tank and to renovate the two bathrooms in town hall to be handicapped accessible.”
That measure, with a Viskup amendment to include the kitchen, passed with only one audible no vote.
The other authorized the selectboard to borrow up to $100,000 “for the purpose of replacing the cupola on the town hall with a new one.” The article passed, 13-8.
Residents also agreed to Town Hall Committee Chairman David Raphael’s motion to add $23,775 to the selectboard’s recommendation of $15,000 to be placed into the Town Hall Restoration Fund.
All three motions triggered debate. Raphael said his motion echoed his motion in 2017, when he persuaded residents to add the same amount to the same fund.
That amount is the annual estimated property tax generated by Green Mountain Power’s 5-megawatt solar array, not far from town hall. Raphael and Viskup, the board head when GMP proposed the massive array, said that revenue was always intended to be used for town hall restoration.
“The understanding was then, and it should be now, that money should go to the restoration project,” Viskup said.
Current Board Chairman Howard Hall said the selectboard has discretion on using those funds.
“There is no written agreement,” Hall said.
He added that the money proposed to be shifted to the restoration fund was earmarked for the general fund and doing so would create a budget shortfall.
“There is not a free lunch in this,” Hall said. “Something is going to have to be reduced.”
Viskup responded by saying the selectboard should have earmarked the GMP money for town hall.  
“You’re starting to understand why the town hall restoration is under siege,” he said.
Both Raphael and newly elected Vergennes-Panton Water District Commissioner Sean Willerford also pointed to the fact Panton had run large surpluses in each of the past two years, and said the town could probably afford to move the funds.
The amendment passed easily.
Viskup rose to amend an article that originally did not include the kitchen and holding tank, but referenced the handicap-accessibility improvements.
He said with the GMP money the town could afford the work to turn town hall into a place where “we can come together as a community.”
In a handout Viskup listed project costs, mostly based on town hall committee estimates, as $15,150 for the downstairs bathroom, $65,000 for the ramp, $69,000 for the kitchen and upstairs bathroom, and $6,500 for the holding tank and installation. Those figures totaled $155,650.
Viskup listed the available funds to pay for the work as $170,055, including $100,000 from the 2017 surplus and $70,055 in the Town Hall Restoration Fund — a figure that does not include the $38,755 added on Tuesday.
Viskup said the board told him money was not available, but that he disagreed.
“It’s still feasible,” Viskup said.
Viskup said he had been assured by Agency of Natural Resources personnel that municipal buildings such as town halls can be granted an exemption to be allowed to use holding tanks.
Hall remained skeptical, citing both septic regulations — “We have a charge to follow state law” — and finances.
“I am concerned we are going to increase taxes,” Hall said.
That concern led to a challenge to Dows’ decision to allow the amendment. Dows said the kitchen had been widely discussed and was thus allowable at town meeting. But Eric Carter, who had earlier lost a race to Dows for moderator, said any spending measure must be advertised in advance and residents were not prepared to debate the issue.
“I don’t believe that it’s properly warned,” Carter said. “This amendment is out of order.”
Dows maintained residents should be allowed to consider the question, and his point of view prevailed, 13-7.
“I think the town deserves the chance to debate the kitchen,” Dows said.
Residents then also noted the selectboard could prioritize the handicap accessibility work, and they backed the amended motion with only a smattering of nays.
The cupola vote was closer, with the vote in favor running 13-8. Some were concerned about the maintenance cost, including what resident David Graham called “excess weight” on the roofline.
Raphael said the project cost included hiring an engineer to make sure there would be adequate support for a new cupola. He also said materials planned for a new cupola were low-maintenance and would not require painting, and the design should thwart leaks, a concern raised by Carter, who said his church’s steeple was a “maintenance nightmare.”
“We have taken that very much into account,” Raphael said. “We solved that problem.”
Raphael urged a yes vote on the cupola for aesthetic reasons.
“It is an icon of our community,” he said. “The cupola on the building is integral to the architecture.”
Viskup said an earlier survey Raphael prepared showed strong support for a putting cupola back on the building — as it had for the kitchen — and that result overcame his personal reservations.
“The people voted for the cupola,” Viskup said. “The people are the ones who count.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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