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  • 2 Sep 2014

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The Valley Reporter
P.O. Box 119
Waitsfield, VT 05673
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Vote yes for the bond vote

This Tuesday, voters will have the opportunity to approve a bond to build and relocate the Waitsfield town office. I am writing not as a Town Office Task Force member but as the town clerk and a taxpayer. Most people come into the town office for five minutes at a time to pay taxes, vote early or register their dog, etc. I wish I could invite everyone to the office at the moment two or more lawyers have land record books covering the conference table while there are people in line to pay taxes and a meeting occurring at the same time. I would ask everyone to come in and take a tour of the ridiculously small vault that, by state statute, should contain all the town’s permanent records, including those in filing cabinets and boxes outside the vault. I would invite anyone in a wheelchair to come in and try to look up his/her deed in the vault or use the “public” bathroom; however, neither can accommodate a wheelchair. I wish all voters had seen the town office after Tropical Storm Irene made a path through the office. The current town office is inadequate and records are vulnerable in so many ways.

 

The Town Office Task Force met for two and a half years, held several public meetings, visited and revisited many properties for consideration of a new facility. Individuals interested in saving the old Methodist church requested further consideration of that building, and the Task Force expended considerable resources to research the property. Ultimately, after great consideration and much input, the task force recommended to the select board that the better, more fiscally responsible property for a town office was the Flemer Farm Stand.

 

With some disappointed that the task force did not recommend the old Methodist church to the select board and that the select board agreed to let the voters decide if we should build on the Farm Stand site, there may be an impulse to discourage voters from supporting the Farm Stand option. Rather than sabotaging a wonderful opportunity, I’d prefer to see this energy poured into the creation of a “Friends of the Methodist church” committee to rally folks and possibly a private investor to purchase the Methodist church and renovate it.

 

Additionally, these things need to be considered:

 

  • For those who feel the decision to move to a new town office is a hasty one, this project has literally been active and left simmering on the back burner for more than 20 years. With interest rates at an all-time low, the time to borrow has never been better than right now.
  • Authorizing the town to borrow this year does not mean the full amount of the loan must be borrowed. Phasing the bond loan will result in lower loan repayments.
  • The loss in tax revenue for the church is $8,749.32 while the loss in tax revenue for the Farm Stand is $989.28 (based on 2012 tax information).The Farm Stand site is not likely to remain an agricultural parcel. If the town does not purchase the Farm Stand parcel, it will be bought by a private buyer and developed.
  • As per the town’s zoning regulations, a parking lot created for the town office would need to be screened from view from Main Street.
  • Grant options are, in fact, very limited for municipal facilities and an award would be a relatively small proportion of the overall cost. If funds are awarded through the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program developed specifically for Irene recovery (to move the town office out of the flood zone), the federal Uniform Relocation Act would require the town to find and pay for alternative accommodations for every tenant, residential and non, adding to the cost.
  • Are we setting a precedent? Is it the town’s job to salvage historic buildings with taxpayer money?
  • The estimated energy and capital maintenance costs for the church are $4,405 more per year than for the Farm Stand.
  • The new town office design is not final.
  • I’d like to see the actual Farm Stand building moved closer to the road and utilized as a bus stop, preserving a piece of history while functioning as a shelter for skiers and/or schoolchildren. Or perhaps another option would be to move it toward the back of the Farm Stand property and use it as a concession stand for events and/or sports activities occurring on the recreation field.
  • I think the church has been misrepresented through some early depictions in that if it were chosen for the new town office, it would be designed as one big, open space. However, the first floor would not be furnished with pews and be used as one large meeting space as it was in its heyday and as pictures have indicated. Rather, it would be broken up into office and meeting space, some with walls and doors.
  • Renovation of the church would cost $769,604 more than a new building on the Farm Stand. Include interest over the life of the loan and that figure is more like $1 million. When voters are asked to consider all the projects brought before them at Town Meeting, think of where that money could be used.
  • Finally, the unknown. Everyone I’ve ever spoken to who has restored an old building has encountered unforeseen problems and, ultimately, expenses once the project is under way and the true condition of the building is exposed. Little is known about the church bell tower’s maintenance other than very little has been done to maintain it. The early price difference between the two sites could easily grow beyond what anyone has anticipated. Buyer beware.

 

The attachment and emotion so many people feel toward the church that has been brought to the surface is a good thing. It’s a valid ambition to have this building revived but not on taxpayer money.

 

If you are a resident of Waitsfield, chances are you have land records and/or vital records (birth, death and marriage certificates) in the town office vault. We’ve already flooded twice within the last 15 years, once through the doors and once through a window that faces Main Street, and the water came dangerously close to the vault both times. Pulling the historic books from the vault and bringing them upstairs to the library may save them from floodwaters, but it also makes them vulnerable to fire. Do we need to learn from our neighbors in Moretown whose vault was several feet under water how costly it is to try to save flooded records? Please don’t wait for the next flood to make it a priority. Vote yes for the bond vote at Tuesday’s Town Meeting.

 

Jennifer Peterson lives in Waitsfield.

 

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