Voting starts on Williamstown public safety buildingProvided image
A southeast view of the proposed Williamstown public safety building by the architectural firm Black River Design.
WILLIAMSTOWN — Town officials and emergency personnel made their last-ditch pitch for a new public safety building over the weekend, and now it is up to voters to decide whether they want to pay for the $2.5 million complex.
Voting on the project is under way, and the results will be available after the polls close one week from today at 7 p.m.
More than two dozen people attended Saturday morning’s final public hearing on the project. While most were already sold on the proposal, those who were still making up their minds were told the need is real, the price is right, and the time will probably never be better.
Hoping to take advantage of historically low interest rates and what he characterized as an extremely favorable bid price, Select Board Chairman Larry Hebert sought to undercut an argument that he claimed he’s been hearing on the street.
“This is not a Taj Mahal,” Hebert said. Officials say the building would bring the town’s fire and ambulance departments under one energy-efficient roof, while creating a small office that would keep a deputy from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department from routinely having to scoot over to Chelsea while being paid to patrol Williamstown.
Hebert said the board did agree to invest $11,000 in a brick façade for a two-story section of the facility that the town hopes to build next to its current ambulance building on Meadow Street. With the exception of that largely aesthetic upgrade, he said, the building will be a mix of concrete and metal siding — both durable, low-maintenance materials.
“There’s nothing in this building that is way above normal construction,” he said.
For the most part Hebert, Select Board member Rodney Graham and Keith Robinson, an architect with Black River Design, were preaching to the choir. The audience included members of the committee that has been working on the project since 2009 and all three of the three departments that would be using it.
Still, there were questions — some about cost and some about design — as some of those who crammed into the meeting room at the current fire station on Depot Street sought to develop a comfort level with the project. At least one, Becky Watson, said she’d heard all she needed to.
“I can’t think of a reason to vote ‘no,’” Watson said, after Graham fielded questions about financing and Robinson defended the design of what he predicted would be “a very stout structural building.”
Graham, who has served as chairman of the committee that has been working on the project, said financing is still a moving target. “Worst case,” he said, the town will be forced to exhaust a $200,000 contingency fund and be unable to qualify for a favorable loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that could save the community roughly $500,000 in interest.
If that happened, Graham said, the town would finance the project over 20 years through the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank. Under that scenario, he said, approval of the $2.5 million project that is on the town meeting ballot would add an estimated $90 to the annual tax bill of a home assessed at $150,000.
According to Graham, that projected tax increase would be closer to $80 if the town qualifies for the USDA loan. He said he is optimistic the community can secure that loan and doubts the contingency account will be seriously depleted.
Though the Select Board is asking for authorization to borrow just over $2.5 million, Graham said he doesn’t expect that much will be needed.
“The goal is to (spend) no more than $2.4 million, and well under that if we don’t use the contingency,” he said.
Graham’s estimates are based on a fixed bid of $2,070,500 that Summit Catamount Construction submitted for the building late last year, as well as a $56,400 bid received for a cost-saving wood pellet-fueled heating system. When you add in the contingency, as well as engineering, permit and insurance costs, costs of equipping the facility and the $30,000 the town plans to pay a clerk of the works to monitor the project, you hit $2.5 million.
Although Hebert said that is a lot of money, it is less than what the board expected when it solicited bids — a fact he attributed to a competitive construction market.
If voters refuse to finance a new building, Hebert predicted construction costs and interest rates would climb, repairs will be needed to the existing facilities, and the town wouldn’t realize projected energy savings. One thing, he said, wouldn’t change.
“The need for the building is never going to go away,” he said.
The building, which includes modest second-floor living quarters that officials said would be used primarily by ambulance volunteers, would replace the converted automotive repair shop on Depot Street that has served as the local fire station since 1962. That building, Graham said, could be sold and the proceeds used to pay down the principal if the town obtains the USDA loan.
Meanwhile, officials said the current ambulance building would be demolished as part of the upgrade to a municipal campus that is home to the town garage and located across Meadow Street from Poulin Lumber.
The proposed building would include a five-bay apparatus area — four for the volunteer fire department and one for the ambulance service — with a mezzanine storage area. Offices for the fire and ambulance departments, as well as the sheriff’s office, would be in an adjoining portion of the building that includes an 864-square-foot meeting room, and men’s and women’s restrooms and locker areas. A small section of that part of the building would include a second floor where living quarters would be located.
Hebert stressed the building is designed to meet the town’s current needs, while providing some flexibility for growth.
“We’re trying to look down the road with this building,” he said.
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