Thursday October 4, 2012

BRATTLEBORO - Town officials held their first public information session Wednesday on a proposed $14.1 million improvement project for the police and fire facilities, and for a 1 percent local option tax that the town wants to start to help pay for the project.

The town is proposing the project to completely renovate the police station and the fire stations on Elliot Street and in West Brattleboro.

About 50 people came out to Wednesday night’s meeting, which lasted for more than two hours.

The meeting was the first of two public information sessions that the town has scheduled leading up to the Oct. 20 vote.

Most of the time was spent talking about the renovations, with little time given to the local option tax.

Town Manager Barbara Sondag opened the meeting by giving a short history, and by saying that the town has been looking at its police and fire facilities for a long time.

Sondag said the town needs a positive bond vote before it can develop more detailed plans. She told the town meeting reps that while the town has plans, they are only preliminary designs and the town meeting reps should not get too worried about details at this point.

Sondag made a case for the project, saying the existing buildings were not built for today’s equipment, and for the call volume, which she said increases every year.

"We have outdated buildings and we are trying to function in these buildings," Sondag said. "We have health and safety issues and structural issues, these are not maintenance issues."

Fire Chief Mike Bucossi talked about the existing conditions, saying the department staff are constantly contending with space and health and safety issues. He also explained the plans and talked about how the stations would change with the new additions.

Police Department Capt. Mike Fitzgerald talked about the needs of the police department, pointing out security, privacy and confidentiality issues as well as ongoing challenges with protecting evidence.

He said the police department moved into the municipal center in 1953.

"It’s not a police department," he said. "We need a secure area for privacy and safety."

Over the 20 year bond, the town would have to raise about $20 million to cover the interest and principal on the bond.

A local option tax could raise about $660,000 annually, and would reduce the taxpayer’s payments by almost $14 million over the life of the bond.

The tax rate would increase by 4.5 cents with the tax, and 10.4 cents without it.

Selectboard member Chris Chapman said that while a new tax could affect sales, the proposed renovations need to be done now, and the local tax is a reasonable way to help pay for it.

"I’m talking about the long term quality of life here that makes our town attractive," Chapman said. "We need first class infrastructure to remain competitive."

And Selectboard member David Gartenstein said Brattleboro had the second highest tax rate in the state, and while he supported the project, he could not support it without the local option tax.

Town meeting reps asked questions about the designs, about how the town came to this plan, and about what other options were considered.

Sondag said the project started at about $18 million, and town officials worked together to bring it down to where it is today. At the same time, she said the staff made sure that the project would meet the town’s needs into the future.

Sondag was also asked if the town could put the project off for a year. She said interest rates are low now and she wondered if economic conditions would be that much different in a year or two.

"We have been saying we can wait for 20 or 30 years now," Sondag said. "When I came into this I wondered if we needed to do this now. Now I feel strongly. We can wait until these buildings crumble, or until someone gets hurt, and I do feel that if we wait, then someone will get hurt at the police station."

An additional information session is scheduled for Oct. 17.

Copies of the plans for the police and fire facility renovations are available at town hall.