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Board OKs police department move to the north end

Town Meeting members to consider Police-Fire Facilities Project prior to Annual Representative Town Meeting

BRATTLEBORO—The Police Department might soon call Black Mountain Road home.

The Selectboard approved moving the police department to the north end of town on Jan. 19 after months of deliberating the multiple building configurations in the Police-Fire Facilities Project.

In a 4–1 vote, the board approved moving forward with the $11.8 million project alternative. Along with moving the police department, the plan calls for completing extensive renovations and building an addition at the Central Fire Station.

Under this plan, Fire Station 2, in West Brattleboro, will be torn down and replaced.

Price tags for the five project alternatives ranged from $1.8 million (for a stopgap plan that only addressed urgent fixes) to $14.1 million.

The $11.8 million Black Mountain Road alternative is expected to provide the best long-term benefit for the taxpayers’ investment.

O’Connor, who voted against the motion, said she did so because she felt the Police Department should stay downtown.

“I support the police 100 precent,” she said. “I don’t believe the move to Black Mountain Road is the answer.”

Fellow Selectboard member John Allen disagreed.

“[The Municipal Center] is just a giant hole we keep dumping water — or money — into,” he said.

Board member Donna Macomber added that she believed moving the Police Department north would be in the community’s best interest.

“Brattleboro isn’t just Main Street,” she said.

Board member David Schoales echoed Allen and Macomber adding, “I think it’s time to decide and see how things work out.”

Authorizing the move

The board has set March 12 as the date for a Special Representative Town Meeting, where members will vote on authorizing the town’s use of $14.1 million to include moving the Police Department to Black Mountain Road.

Some questioned the board, saying that they were under the impression that Town Meeting would vote again on the project as a whole.

Elwell apologized, saying he might have created that misunderstanding at public meetings last fall.

Members of the board, Elwell, and Town Attorney Robert Fisher explained that Representative Town Meeting approved the project as a whole in 2012. They also approved contractors spending up to $14.1 million to complete the project.

What differs from the 2012 motion — and requires a new vote — is moving the police to Black Mountain Road, said town officials. The 2012 motion named the location of the Police Department as the Municipal Center.

The controversial project has received oversight from town staff, the Police-Fire Facility Building Committee, and members of the public.

Project supporters felt that emergency-services employees deserved safe and secure facilities. Opponents, however, felt the project put an unfair burden on taxpayers.

Documented problems with the town’s three emergency services buildings include structural problems, bay doors too small for modern firetrucks, and mold.

Community members have attempted to undertake a rehabilitation project, on and off, for decades. Most recently, Town Meeting members authorized $14.1 million in 2012. A year later, however, the municipal budget was defeated in a special town-wide referendum. General consensus at the time pegged the defeat on the Police-Fire Facilities Project, so the Selectboard sent it back to the drawing board.

The survey said...

The town’s Police-Fire project survey received 523 responses (505 online and 18 hard copy), said Elwell.

Elwell reported last week that more respondents choose proceeding with the full projects on all three buildings over the “minimum prudent” options.

According to Elwell, 77 percent wanted the more robust, and more expensive, renovations of Central Fire Station on Elliot Street. Numbers were similar for Station 2 in West Brattleboro.

The town also asked residents to answer a three-part question regarding the construction of a third story onto Central Station.

Elwell said 43 percent of people checked “build the third floor now,” 29 percent favored making the building structurally strong enough to add a third story in the future, and the remainder favored not building the third floor.

Responses related to the Police Station at the Municipal Center were closer.

According to Elwell, when asked whether the town should relocate the police station to Black Mountain Road, 60 percent said “yes” and 40 percent said “no.”

If the department were to remain downtown, however, 77 percent of responders rejected making only “minimum prudent” changes at the Municipal Center.

Respondents also favored, by a 75-percent margin, rehabilitating the buildings concurrently, as opposed to conducting work in phases.

In the final question, the town asked survey takers to choose from a list of project configurations.

Elwell said that 51 percent chose the option of proceeding with the full rehabilitation of all three stations and moving the police station to Black Mountain Road.

Town analyzes maintenance costs, tax impacts

In response to questions about the cost-effectiveness of maintaining both the Municipal Center and a police station at Black Mountain Road, Elwell crunched the numbers, along with Finance Director John O’Connor, Town Assessor Russell Rice, and Energy Committee member Lester Humphries.

According to a Jan. 6 memo from Elwell to the Selectboard, the cost-benefit of operating the two buildings will depend on how much of the Municipal Center the town rents to other organizations.

The town already rents portions of the Municipal Center to outside organizations.

“The difference in the financial impact between the two alternatives during the 20-year life-cycle period would be approximately equivalent to the amount of rent that can be generated by leasing the vacated Municipal Center space,” he added.

Elwell wrote that the total estimated annual operating and maintenance costs for the Black Mountain Road property would average $66,000.

Meanwhile, Elwell wrote, the amount of rent the Municipal Center could generate would average $60,000.

“That results in the conclusion of $60,000 annual benefit if the Municipal Center space is fully leased, $30,000 annual benefit if the Municipal Center space is 50 percent leased, and a net ‘wash’ between the two alternatives if no space at the Municipal Center is leased,” he wrote.

According to Elwell, the tax rate for the Police-Fire Facilities Project is expected to peak in fiscal year 2018.

The first thing to understand about taking out a bond from the state bond bank: because of how the debt is paid off, the tax rate will peak and then decrease over the life of the loan.

John O’Connor used fiscal year 2018 in his analysis of the project’s related taxes.

The total taxes related to the project include debt on the $5 million bond the town took out in 2013 and any additional borrowing. The taxpayers have already been paying on the 2013 bond.

The tax impact is figured using a 20-year bond.

Moving the police station to Black Mountain Road and doing the full scope of work at the two fire stations will add $0.0928 to the tax rate in fiscal year 2018. That’s $92.82 of additional tax on a house assessed at $100,000. For a house worth $300,000, the additional tax would be $278.47.

Before choosing to move forward with relocating the police station to Black Mountain Road, the board considered five project alternatives.

The difference in tax between the least expensive alternative (the minimum prudent for all three stations) and the most expensive (the original 2013 version of the project adjusted for inflation) is $26.43 on a house valued at $100,000. For a house assessed at $300,000, the difference is $79.30.

The final tax increases, however, could be less, said Elwell. The board has opted to use some of the town’s budget surplus to lower the tax rate. If the town borrows through a bank rather than the state bond bank, this could also lower costs.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #341 (Wednesday, January 27, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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