Brattleboro board endorses police relocation

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BRATTLEBORO >> Town Meeting Representatives will have the opportunity to vote on whether the police department should move to Black Mountain Road, and that's the only option on which they will be voting, after the Selectboard endorsed the move in a 4-1 vote at Tuesday's meeting.

"You'd be asking Representative Town Meeting members to allocate out of those authorized but not issued bonds," said Town Attorney Bob Fisher, referring to a vote in 2012 where the projects were approved but the budget had been rejected by a town-wide referendum. "Everything else remains exactly the same. You do not need to re-warn anything with regard to the fire stations because the renovations to the fire stations are staying in the locations as previously warned."

Already authorized four years ago was $14.1 million for the renovations. Since then, the need to do something has only increased. There's mold on the walls of the police station in the Municipal Center and ceilings are falling and more space is needed for vehicles at the fire department's Central Station.

The board could choose to reduce parts of the fire department projects, Fisher said, making a recommendation against warning an article seeking advice from representatives as it could complicate the vote around the relocation to Black Mountain Road.

"It feels a little bit of a bait and switch here," said District 2 Representative Franz Reichsman, urging the board to be careful in its presentation of the project. "I think for those of us who have been paying attention to this as it's been developing over the past few months, it's sort of been with this expectation that we're going to get to say something meaningful about what the choices are."

A broader combined project was expected to be up for vote at the Representative Town Meeting.

Town Manager Peter Elwell, saying he was taking "responsibility for creating confusion," said expectations were created during three public meetings where presentations from both chiefs were given.

To discuss the project further, a special Representative Town Meeting at Brattleboro Area Middle School has been scheduled for March 12 at 8:30 a.m. Representative Town Meeting will be held on March 19.

A survey was released on Jan. 6 and 523 people responded to questions about their preferences for the facilities. Not every participant answered every question. And Reichsman warned the board against looking at the results as being entirely representative of the community, saying "some surprises might be in store" when others decide to join the process.

Moving the police station to Black Mountain Road had survey participants pretty much split; 55 percent were in favor while 44 percent were not. Buying and then renovating the Reformer building would cost $4.1 million and officials believe the project would ensure a suitable facility for the next 20 years or so. A purchase option agreement was secured by the town in November. Under the deal, an area would be partitioned off where the newspaper would continue its operations in the building for at least the first five years and serve as a tenant.

"This is the least expensive alternative for fully modernizing the police department's facilities," the survey said. "It would leave vacant space at the Municipal Center to be leased or otherwise re-used."

Fixing up the municipal building, where the police are now located, was opposed by 66 percent of the participants. Officials' concerns with that option involve privacy, flow of space and cost.

Approximately 77 percent were in favor of the full scope at Central Fire Station. An additional story there costing about $550,000 was supported by 40 percent, but was not supported by the Selectboard. Construction of structural elements instead of the extra floor at a price of $175,000 was supported by 28 percent. A minimal plan of upgrades was largely unfavorable; 76 percent of participants said they would not prefer the immediate remedial improvements.

An estimated $1,478,730 project at West Brattleboro Fire Station was preferred by 75 percent. Three percent more were against a minimal plan there.

"It's very useful information," said Selectboard Chairman David Gartenstein, although he and other board members acknowledged flaws within the survey. Names were asked for but not required and there was a potential for people to fill out several forms.

Business owner David Manning does not believe residents want the police to relocate. He said walking to Black Mountain Road would take an hour as opposed to the six minutes it took him to get to the Municipal Center on Tuesday night. Also worrisome to him was "the cultural aspect," meaning officers may feel separated from the community or vice versa.

"When I was operating my fish and chip shop on Elliot Street, I came across a young man that was vandalizing my property. He was pouring a can of oil I stored in the alleyway down the stairs," said Manning, who stopped the intoxicated individual from pouring more and called police. Following up with the arresting officer proved difficult. "I said, 'Please get back to me. I want to get in contact with this young man so we can either A, have him in front of a judge to take care of this problem or B, come and clean up this mess.' The officer didn't call me back."

When Manning ran into the officer downtown, he said the officer told him he did not feel like he had to call him back. That showcased "elitism from the police force that's unacceptable for our community," Manning said, mentioning that he saw community-police dynamics change in Keene, N.H., when the police station was moved off of Main Street and about a mile out of town.

The dissenting vote for endorsing relocation was made by Vice Chairwoman Kate O'Connor, who said she did not want her decision to be seen as one against the police. She wanted the department to stay downtown and in the Municipal Center, saying the Black Mountain Road site cannot be seen from Putney Road.

"I trust completely and am reassured there will be as strong a police presence all over Brattleboro," said board member Donna Macomber. "I think Brattleboro isn't just Main Street, although it's easy to forget that sometimes."

Gartenstein, who previously voiced his concerns around relocation, said he evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of the alternatives. But looking at costs to keep the police downtown changed his view. Renovations at the municipal building would cost $5.5 million, about $1.4 million more than the estimated cost to relocate.

"We can't really have the police station here (Municipal Center) in a manner that's going to serve the agency for the short and the medium and the long term and do it in a healthy, safe way that facilitates their work," Gartenstein said. "The cost of staying here is significantly more expensive. I really feel strongly about keeping the costs down."

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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