BRATTLEBORO — With public meetings now behind it, the Selectboard is looking at how to move forward procedurally with police and fire facility improvements.
But there's also the question of which option and how to solicit public input before it's presented.
"I did not come away knowing what the public wants," Selectboard Kate O'Connor said at a meeting Tuesday. "It is clear there are people concerned with the price tag, which I think would be natural in the situation because that's what we faced in the past."
Three meetings — where question and answer sessions followed presentations on alternatives for making upgrades deemed necessary to department facilities — received thoughtful responses, according to O'Connor. She praised the presentations while noting the board never asked for attendees to raise their hands to get a sense for preferences.
A non-binding town-wide vote could help with gauging public thought on the matter, O'Connor said, but language drafted for a ballot would be important.
"You can word things to get the answer you want or you can word things in a way where we actually get a sense of what people think," she said. "If we want to go that route, we have to be very thoughtful in how we say what the options are. Obviously, it would have to go Town Meeting."
Board member John Allen considered the meetings' turnout to be low and said he thought the board should act now. He doubted the ability to gauge public feedback "correctly" with the large number of people residing in town and said the question of what to do with the Municipal Center if police were to move into the Reformer building at Black Mountain Road still needs to be answered.
"This may be the year where we have to bite the bullet," Allen said. "It has to move forward at this point and I know it's going to come down to the money end of it. I just don't know where we're going to end up if we have a non-binding vote on this. It's going to have go before town reps."
Board member Donna Macomber counted 135 people at the three meetings and thanked them for coming out. She hoped attendees represented "a broad sector of individuals."
"For me the bottom line is, what is our responsibility? How do we best accomplish that and not create a situation that burdens the community unnecessarily?" she said. "I think we live in a community where many people work two or three jobs just to put food on the table, just to keep a roof over their head, just to keep up with the costs. And I think aspects of town government rise to a level of consciousness when people are concerned about a decision that's about to be made."
Overall impact of the projects, frustration over how long it's taking to get the projects moving and concerns around efficient energy are questions Macomber is "mulling over." Also, there's concern for emergency service employees in town who do not have adequate facilities.
Her goal is to find a way to balance the ability to pay with making upgrades that last at least 10 to 20 years.
"Ultimately, I think the decision falls on the town and the people who are going to be paying the taxes," Macomber said. "I feel pretty confident that resolving the problem in a holistic way will benefit this community in the long run because of the rising costs."
Board member David Schoales said attendees clearly heard the concerns as each option was explained. He too considered the questions thoughtful.
Police Chief Mike Fitzgerald was "very objective and impartial" although building onto the Municipal Center was not the preferred route, said Schoales, who called a design for Black Mountain Road "smooth" and "free-flowing."
"There's no question about it when you look at those designs," Schoales said. "One's going to work really well and one's going to continue to be a pain in the neck. I think our job and responsibility, consistent with the town governance in this town, is that we warn it and take it to Town Meeting."
Board Chairman David Gartenstein pointed out the process is complicated by the need to try and warn an article to authorize a bond for the projects. That would likely happen at a town meeting before Representative Town Meeting for the budget being held on March 19. A ballot item would need to be prepared by Jan. 20 for Annual Town Meeting, which falls on March 1.
"I remain in many ways in the same place I was three years ago, recognizing that having probably a total of 9 cents on the tax rate in order to build these facilities at $11 or $12 million worth is probably way too much of a burden for us to be carrying and for us to be imposing," said Gartenstein. "And that's why I voted against the bond issue three years ago after the 1 percent local option tax (vote) was defeated because we didn't have an alternate funding source."
Going with the "minimum prudent" plans did not make sense to Gartenstein, who said further upgrades at the facilities would then be needed in another five to seven years. Phasing the projects was not preferable either as construction costs to complete them later on will surely rise.
"It's a very difficult conundrum," he said. "I'm concerned that we gather up public input then get a decision at Town Meeting and then once again face either taxpayer revolt this year, or more likely that we put shovels to the ground after getting approval on the bonds and then see rejection of the budget next year when we got the biggest hit."
Questions on the project will be included on weekly Selectboard meeting agendas. Project options can be viewed at brattleboro.org.