Panton town hall cupola, kitchen debated

PANTON — Seven months after residents at a contentious Panton Town Meeting backed spending money to repair and upgrade Panton Town Hall, much new work has been done, including a new handicap access ramp to the main meeting space and new accessible bathrooms to serve that space.  
But two projects residents also backed, a public kitchen in that space and a replacement for the wooden cupola removed seven years ago, remain in limbo.
The selectboard and members of the Town Hall Committee that the board disbanded, but who are still volunteering their time to move town hall work forward, are still working to move those two final projects forward.
But they disagree on a key funding source in what is a continuation of a Town Meeting Day debate. And they are not yet in agreement on how best to replace the cupola.
And on Sept. 20 the selectboard said it would look into an aluminum replacement that members said would be cheaper, lighter, and still attractive, but the former town hall committee chairman is concerned Panton’s $100,000 Cerf Foundation grant to fund a replacement cupola would be at risk with the aluminum option.
Both sides are moving forward on researching the kitchen. Selectboard Chairman Howard Hall said the board wants to make sure it meets all state and federal handicap-accessibility, fire-safety, and wastewater-disposable requirements, and the cost is reasonable.
“We need to get more information from the state fire marshal and understand what we can and can’t do,” Hall said. “That will give us an idea on limitation of funds and how much we need to do and what is actually feasible.”
Hall also wondered how strong the support would be for a kitchen if its price tag rose.
“I would like to know how many people would want to do this,” Hall said.  
Hall added he’s not sure how often the kitchen might be used.
“It would be great to have a fabulous kitchen, but if nobody’s using it, it’s not worth having,” Hall said. “Because it is an expensive venture.”
Former Town Hall Committee chairman David Raphael said residents have supported a kitchen in a survey conducted by the planning commission and in a series of town meeting votes.
In March residents voted to add $100,000 from a budget surplus to the Town Hall Restoration Fund to replace town hall’s unusable former handicap access ramp, to renovate the bathrooms, and to “add a service kitchen and gray water storage tank.”
Former committee member John Viskup had amended the motion to include the kitchen and storage tank, and it passed easily.
But the ramp, completed earlier this year, proved to be more costly than expected, and more funding will be needed to install a kitchen.
Raphael and Viskup, a former multi-term selectman, more recently met with the selectboard on Sept. 20.
Raphael said the two “agreed to review the kitchen situation, talk with who we need to talk with in the state with regard to what is permissible and what isn’t permissible without great expense or any additional cost with regard to fire safety purposes, with the notion that we want to have some form of a kitchen that is reasonable, cost-effective.”
As for funding the kitchen and cupola, Raphael and Hall disagreed in interviews with the Independent, re-affirming positions they staked out at March town meeting.
Hall said the selectboard is wary about taxes increasing.
“We have to make sure that we have money in the budget to actually, if we’re going to get a loan, to cover the cost of the loan,” Hall said. 
Residents have supported at each of the past two town meetings dedicating to town hall upgrades $23,775 of estimated new tax revenue from Green Mountain Power’s new nearby 5-megawatt solar array. Hall maintains that revenue in the future goes into the general fund to be used at the selectboard’s discretion unless voters again earmark it for the Town Hall Restoration Fund, to which they typically also chip in $20,000 a year.
Hall said there is “no written agreement” that states GMP solar array tax revenue should fund town hall projects.
“We can’t just arbitrarily take the money from the solar field next year and put it into that fund. That would have to be voted on. It’s not continuously money going from the solar field into the town hall repair fund. There was nothing ever passed to do that,” he said.
Raphael and Viskup, who retired from the board at the 2017 town meeting, take a different view. At Panton’s 2018 town meeting Viskup said, “The understanding was then, and it should be now, that money should go to the restoration project.” 
Raphael sees it the same way.
“I think everybody understood, and I think it was implicit that the revenues from the solar field would go over time on a yearly basis to pay back any loan or bonding that we would have to undertake to complete what the citizens supported for town hall improvements, including some form of a kitchen, and including putting the cupola back on. And including other projects that are not completed,” Raphael said.
Town meeting minutes are inconclusive, other than to note the articles in question passed at each meeting.  
Workers removed the cupola from atop Panton Town Hall in 2011 to save money on needed roof repairs. Plans first called for it to be put back, but its weight and poor condition led officials to focus recently on a duplicate made of lower-maintenance, lighter-weight material. On Sept. 20 the selectboard agreed to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Cerf Foundation giving the town until the end of 2019 to finish the project or forfeit its $100,000 grant.
Hall believes it’s worth looking at an aluminum cupola that would cost roughly $25,000 delivered, but not installed, and weigh between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds. He said a Kentucky company designs them to duplicate appearances of originals, and that the company’s work can be found at locations such as the U.S. Naval Academy.
“Every one they make is custom-made, so it could be identical to what we’re looking at,” Hall said. “And being that it’s 35 feet in the air, you would have a hard time telling it’s aluminum, not wood.”
Raphael said he is not convinced, and said that lightweight composite wood would be a better choice and also offer lower maintenance costs.
“I’m not sure either the fiberglass imitation or the aluminum imitation would be acceptable to folks that oversee the grant,” he said. “We’re trying to restore the cupola as best as possible to its original form and construction, with the caveat that we’ve redesigned it with, A. much lighter materials, and B. much, much more durable materials so that it will not require maintenance for many, many years.”
But Hall argued for the cheaper option given that many elements of Panton’s mid-1800s town hall are already built of materials that are not historic.
“We believe that ship has sailed with our fiberglass windows, plastic decking and handrails, and everything else that is low-maintenance. You can’t sit there and say we need something original when everything else in the building is not original,” he said. “It’s like we’re doing the best we can for the amount of money we have.”
From Raphael’s point of view, the town has already chosen a course, a composite-wood cupola using the Cerf grant funding.
“I still believe very strongly that we should and we need to pursue the original proposal that I would remind everyone, including the selectboard, that the town voters supported,” he said. “I’m always open to exploring alternatives and certainly think we should do that, but I personally feel that we’ve already got the right solution.”
Regardless of how the town moves forward with the last details, there is no question major improvements have been made to Panton Town Hall, with new elements also including doors, heat pumps upstairs and down, a furnace and insulation throughout. 
“That building has come a long way,” Hall said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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