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Town Meeting Members to vote on fire and police facilities, 1 percent option tax, and town charter change

BRATTLEBORO—Two financial questions relating to upgraded police and fire facilities will go before the Representative Town Meeting Members on Oct. 20.

Meeting members will vote at a Special Town Meeting whether to assess a 1 percent sales tax and whether to approve a bond for the multi-million dollar upgrades to the police and fire stations.

Funds generated by the 1 percent sales tax would help finance the capital improvements to the three stations.

Without the tax, said Selectboard Chair Dick DeGray, the $14.1 million dollar project would fall on the backs of property owners. DeGray has lobbied in previous years for the town to institute a 1 percent sales tax.

Finance Director John O’Connor said the property tax rate is $1.1259. A bond for $14,130,000 will increase the property tax by about 10.5 cents per $100 of accessed value.

The bond will carry a maximum of 5 percent interest over 20 years.

The police and fire station upgrades have languished for more than 10 years. Town Meeting Members approved $12 million for the project in 2001.

Both emergency facilities face limitations caused by outdated buildings.

Chief Eugene Wrinn has said that the police station’s narrow stairwell leading to basement-level holding cells poses safety issues for officers and detainees. Also, the basement evidence storage area is moldy.

The bay doors at the Central Fire Station on Elliot Street, built in the 1940s, are too small for modern-day fire engines. The new engines also weigh more than the floor was built to hold.

The total project’s budget stands at $14.1 million. The three branches of the project break down to $5.6 million for renovations to the Brattleboro Police Station, with $1.5 million for the West Brattleboro Fire Station, and about $7 million for the Central Fire Station.

According to Town Manager Barbara Sondag, the project team and town staff refined the designs, lowering the original budget.

Initial estimates totaled $14.6 million, said Sondag.

The majority of design changes occurred at the two fire stations.

Selectboard Vice-chair David Gartenstein said the new budget reflected changes that arose during “due diligence.” The board requested the architect move the Emergency Operations Center from West Brattleboro to Central Station to save money. It also swapped out an elevator for a lift in the police station.

Changes at the West Brattleboro Station also included removing parking behind the building and reducing the number of parking spaces on the north side of the station. Designers removed a driveway cutting through to the lot shared with Academy School.

In a major design change for Central Station, designers extended the half floor, called the 2.5 floor, the full length of a new addition. This added about 480 square feet. The Emergency Operations Center will be located on the second floor.

“We pretty much brought the budget down as far as it would go,” Gartenstein said.

Some line items were questioned and deemed necessary, such as ventilation systems, or general construction, he said. Liability coverage, project administration, and contingency alone added about $1 million to the budget of the Central Fire Station.

Sondag said this budget is “preliminary” and will be used for a bond vote.

Funding equation

The board has discussed at length how to figure the project’s funding equation. Should the town bond the project, to be paid through an increase in property taxes, or through a combination of bond vote and instituting a 1 percent option tax?

Gartenstein said that without an alternative funding source, the property tax increase “would be way too high.”

“It’s hard for me to support it without an alternative [to the bond] source of funding,” he said, adding the 1 percent sales tax proved “the lesser of all evils.”

Gartenstein also said in a separate interview that he’s committed to the 1 percent tax paying for the police and fire upgrades. He said he feels the tax should not remain in place after the town has paid the bond. He added he could not speak for future Selectboards or Town Meeting Members.

“The lesser of the two evils is having that 1 percent paying for a portion of the debt service,” said DeGray.

DeGray said he expected the business community to “come in and jump up and down.”

“As a Selectboard member, I can’t just listen to a vocal minority,” he said.

The impact of the bond on property taxes is also difficult for homeowners, DeGray said.

DeGray pointed to past multi-million renovations at the local schools as happening “easily” while the town budget “gets scrutinized harder.”

“It’s an equity problem here,” he said.

“This [1 percent tax] is making me decide to not buy a house,” said Selectboard member Dora Bouboulis.

Fellow member Chris Chapman said, that “kicking the can down the road” on the police and fire stations upgrades has ended up costing the town more.

“I don’t believe there’s evidence that the current 1 percent tax on meals has discouraged growth,” said Chapman.

Bouboulis said New Hampshire has a 10 percent rooms and meals tax so there is “no competition.”

According to Sondag, town meeting members will vote on the 1 percent tax in a standing voice vote, while the bond vote is done by secret ballot. In past years, rules did not allow business to be conducted on the floor after the polls opened. This rule, however, has changed.

The Special Representative Town Meeting will take place Oct. 20 at 8:30 a.m. in the Academy School gymnasium, 860 Western Ave.

The town will hold two informational meetings on the police and fire station projects and the option tax on Oct. 3 and 17 at 6:30 p.m. at the Gibson-Aiken Senior Center, 207 Main St.

Meeting members will also vote on one final change to the Town Charter relating to the Office of Assessment and the assessment of property.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #171 (Wednesday, September 26, 2012).

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