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Town Meeting reps endorse relocation of Police Department

Members approve motion by an overwhelming margin

BRATTLEBORO—Town Manager Peter Elwell hoped for a clear majority from the Special Representative Town Meeting vote on March 12 on the Police-Fire Facilities Project.

Elwell got more than he hoped for.

The results were clear: Town Meeting Members overwhelmingly approved relocating the Police Department to Black Mountain Road, 111 to 27.

The vote also authorized using $4.5 million of the funds allocated in 2012 for renovating the new location on Black Mountain Road.

In all, 138 Town Meeting members cast Australian ballots at a meeting that lasted a little more than three hours.

Elwell admitted that when he joined the process of re-evaluating the Police-Fire project more than a year ago, he started with thinking that the police should stay at the Municipal Center.

“But we found that option [Municipal Center] was not as good a plan for the community,” he said.

And, Elwell wasn’t alone.

Selectboard Chair David Gartenstein opened the meeting noting that, “Like many of us, I was skeptical when the suggestion was first made to move the police to Putney Road.”

Gartenstein said he is “firmly committed to the vitality of downtown Brattleboro.” The more the Black Mountain Road and Municipal Center alternatives were vetted, however, the more constraints and problems reared their heads at the Municipal Center.

Board member Kate O’Connor was the solo board vote against moving the police station.

She told meeting members that she couldn’t support the relocation for a variety of reasons.

First, the town will still need to put money in the Municipal Center to fix life safety issues. She felt uncomfortable moving a central municipal service out of downtown. She did not like that the new location was not as easy to walk to for people living without cars.

O’Connor worried about what moving the station would mean for the culture of downtown.

“Once we move, we know we’re not moving back,” she said.

At the Saturday morning meeting, comments from the floor ran the spectrum: from the project is a waste of taxpayers’ money, to Black Mountain Road is a bad option but so is doing nothing, to why have the voters wasted valuable time, to stressing the town needed to act before a firefighter or police officer was hurt.

Moments before the polls opened, a handful of meeting members (and even a few before the polls closed) said they still felt unsure about how to vote.

Questions of accessibility to Black Mountain Road for those without cars, the project’s costs, the long-term costs of maintaining another town building, and the loss of revenue from taking 62 Black Mountain Road off the tax rolls were some of the issues still on the meeting members’ minds.

The board and Elwell have said that the extra costs of maintaining a new station in addition to the Municipal Center could be offset by renting out the old police station. Elwell disclosed to the meeting members that the State of Vermont and Brattleboro Housing Partnerships are considering renting space in the Municipal Center.

On the topic of accessibility, Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald provided additional data on the number of people walking into the police department looking for help.

According to Fitzgerald, from Jan. 1, 2015 to March 7, 2017, the department responded to 12,253 calls for service. In-person reports for that period totaled 559. Of those, 59 were crimes.

“There was not a single crime reported in person that was emergent,” Fitzgerald wrote in a memo.

The one in-person call that required an emergency response involved a wife reporting that she and her husband with Alzheimer’s had been separated. The police located him safely on Putney Road, said Fitzgerald.

Town Meeting Member Spoon Agave (District 3) pleaded on behalf of those in town who can’t afford the taxes in town to vote “no” to the relocation in general and the project overall.

In Agave’s opinion, the board has spoken about this project as if the community is obligated to spend $14.1 million.

“We aren’t,” he said, adding that if the community has that kind of money, it should put that money to worthy causes like hunger, or homelessness.

Dr. Robert Tortolani (District 2) said he knocked on doors in his neighborhood before attending the day’s meeting. His constituents’ responses helped decide his vote.

Of the 32 people who happened to be home at the time that Tortolani spoke with them, all appreciated the police department’s work and wanted a station that met the officers’ needs. However, 20 preferred the department remain downtown. Only four agreed with moving the station to Black Mountain Road. The remaining eight people didn’t have an opinion.

Dora Bouboulis (District 3) said the lack of accessibility to Black Mountain Road was a problem.

She added that the proper way to vote on the whole question of the Police-Fire project is through a town-wide vote, and this week, Bouboulis said she initiated a petition seeking a binding referendum on the relocation plan.

According to Town Clerk Annette Cappy, opponents need to turn in 400 signatures from registered voters, or 50 signatures from Town Meeting Members, within 10 days of the original vote to force a special election. The deadline for this petition is Tuesday, March 22, at 5 p.m.

Longtime Town Meeting Member Raphael Corbeil (District 2) spoke in favor of the project.

He said he’s old enough to remember the previous home of the police department, at the old Brattleboro Town Hall and Auditorium on Main Street. When the Town Hall was torn down in 1953, the department relocated to the old Brattleboro High School, which was re-purposed into today’s Municipal Center.

“Let’s get out of the 19th century,” he said. “Let’s get into the 21st century.”

Donald Webster (District 3), said “This is the most vetted project I’ve ever witnessed. I urge you to support this.”

Paula Melton (District 1) summed up her conundrum.

The Black Mountain Road alternative isn’t an adequate solution, she said. The station should be in downtown. The town’s argument that those without cars can take the bus to Black Mountain Road is “glib.”

But, Melton continued, she toured the current station. It’s inadequate too. The officers are demoralized.

“I don’t have the stomach to say no to this plan because I just think we need to move forward,” Melton said.

Approval to relocate the police department represents one step in a multi-year process to rehabilitate the town’s three aging emergency services buildings.

Some residents and town staff remember conversations about repairing the outdated two fire and one police stations’ many life safety issues going back decades. The town’s latest push to fix the buildings started in 2012.

The road traveled by the Police-Fire Project has been a rocky one. Meeting Members first approved $14.1 million in funding for the project in 2012. Before shovels could crack the ground, however, the Selectboard put the project on hold in 2014 when the municipal budget was defeated in a special referendum.

After the vote, Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald expressed gratitude. He started working on the Police-Fire Project in 2010.

A lot of people’s hard work and willingness to listen to the needs of the department made this project and today’s vote possible, he said.

“111 to 27 says we pretty much answered all their questions,” he said.

He looks forward to the new station and using it to serve the people of Brattleboro.

Brattleboro Police Capt. Mark Carignan said the current station’s poor work flow and other constraints have many real world consequences for how well the officers can do their jobs. Constraints like rooms serving multiple purposes or no privacy for victims.

62 Black Mountain Road will provide a space that’s “easier for officers to do their jobs.”

The next step for the project includes the board approving language to include at the Annual Representative Town Meeting on March 19.

At the Selectboard’s regular Tuesday meeting on March 15, the board members are scheduled to vote on an adjustment to the fiscal year 2017 municipal budget and tax rate.

According to Town Manager Peter Elwell’s memo to the board, “The amount of first year debt service for the Black Mountain Road alternative would be $176,906 (which would require an increase in the property tax rate of 1.5 cents)."

The tax increase related to the Black Mountain Road location is less than if work proceeded at the Municipal Center. That increase would have been 1.69 cents per $100 of assessed value.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #348 (Wednesday, March 16, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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