Voters consider an additional $1.237 million
By Kim Howard
Williston voters on Tuesday will decide the fate of a proposed new town police station. The vote will take place 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. at the Williston fire station in what is believed to be the nation’s first-ever drive-thru vote (see story page 5).
Town officials have proposed spending an additional $1.237 million to complete a 23,000-square-foot new fire station and a 13,000-square-foot new police station. In 2004, voters approved $6.8 million for improved public safety buildings, but town officials say construction cost increases have put the project over budget.
A “no” vote on Tuesday means a new police station will not be built, Town Manager Rick McGuire said. The vote also will impact three fire and rescue station items, including a three-bay garage to house first response vehicles.
A public hearing Tuesday night drew seven residents in addition to members of the public safety buildings committee.
Project Manager Tom Barden, of Barden Inspection and Consulting Services, explained that construction costs have increased an average of 15 percent since 2003 project estimates. A new seismic building code also affected building requirements.
“We got hit with a double whammy,” Barden said. “Not only did we get hit with increasing costs inflation wise, but we also got hit with a new code.”
Committee members emphasized a “yes” vote would minimally change the town tax rate since the Selectboard has committed $950,000 worth of landfill revenue, town fund reserves and local option sales tax proceeds to the project. McGuire said that leaves only $287,000 to be borrowed.
“That’s money we won’t have later, that we’ll have to pay taxes on to fund something else,” resident Joel Reynolds.
McGuire agreed that was a possibility. He also said the town will retain more than $500,000 in reserves.
A “yes” vote on Tuesday will increase the town tax rate by $2.50 a year per $100,000 of a home’s assessed value, officials said. If the full amount were to be borrowed, which McGuire has emphasized is not necessary, town taxes would go up $10 a year per $100,000 of a home’s assessed value. The homeowner of a $300,000 house is currently paying about $120 a year for the project, based on the original approved bond.
Resident Pat Martel asked why residents were voting on approving $1.237 million if only about a quarter of that needs to be borrowed.
McGuire said it’s what the law requires.
“We can’t spend a penny over what has been authorized, which is $6.8 million, unless we have additional authorization,” McGuire said earlier this week. “(The authorization) has to be for the full amount we have to spend…. How it’s funded is an entirely separate matter.”
Resident Michael Mauss said at the hearing he can’t believe it would cost more to renovate the current firehouse than to demolish it and start new.
“When the existing footprint is used, the building becomes a three-story building instead of a two-story building,” Barden explained earlier this week. “They’re trying to squeeze the same square footage into a smaller footprint. The price goes up.”
When asked why the existing footprint could not be used for a two-story building, Barden said the square footage would be less than what the police department needs, based on the assessment of two design firms.
“Both design groups came up with square footage that was within a couple of hundred feet of each other,” Barden said. “The buildings as designed reflect that square footage.”
Williston resident Ginger Isham said in an interview this week she is leaning toward voting no on the request for additional funds.
“It seems like we’re building something for 50 years from now, that maybe we don’t need quite all of this,” Isham said. “They are in desperate need of more space and more room. But maybe instead of a luxury plan can we do something that’s not so costly?”
Looking at the floor plans, Isham said she questioned, for example, the need for two break rooms on the first floor; an exercise room on the second floor; and four holding cells.
Interim Police Chief Jim Dimmick said in an interview that other police departments also are busy.
“There’s not always a guaranteed room at the barracks that we can put people that we have in custody,” Dimmick said. “So it would be a shopping around” process to find available cells in Chittenden County.
Dimmick said his primary concern with the current station is the lack of rooms for private conversations with crime victims.
Resident Priscilla Miller said she went to the public hearing with an open mind, but her inclination was Williston couldn’t afford the project now. After hearing the discussion, however, she said it became clear the committee looked at all the options in their long-term planning.
“It makes sense to move forward with the proposal at this time as costs will never be less than they are at this juncture,” Miller said. “This is something that has to be done. That’s all there is to it.”