The latest flap concerning the recent town-college proposal to build a new municipal building on the Osborne House site reminds us of the old British idiom, “storm in a teacup,” or the better known American version, “tempest in a teapot,” or, if you prefer the Yiddish saying, “a squall in a spoon of water.” Pick your fancy, it all boils down to taking a small event and blowing its significance out of proportion.
Such is the case with Middlebury Selectman Craig Bingham’s unusual decision to reveal an executive session discussion in 2011 in which the selectboard rejected an “unsolicited” offer by Middlebury College officials to buy the current municipal building site for $2.825 million. (See story, Page 1A.) Bingham’s not so gracious point is to suggest Middlebury College has been pining for this piece of town property for years, and that townspeople should reject the current offer of $5.5 million — that includes helping the town solve other long-standing problems — as if it is a matter of town pride or some other notions that are equally irrational.
What is so unseemly about Bingham’s allegation is his apparent attempt to cast the college, and current selectboard members (by virtue of their collusion), in a bad light. He seems to have the misguided notion that the revelation will somehow validate his opposition and his preference that the town rebuild on its current site.
We disagree with Bingham on three fundamental accounts:
• The town has discussed how to renovate, raze and rebuild or move the current municipal building for the past 15 or more years. Naturally, the college has always been a party to that dialogue. To suggest that the College responded to an obvious problem the town was facing in 2011 without specific solicitation is to disregard the prior decades. Bingham is playing “gotcha” on a petty point and trying to create a stink about it.
The simple facts are the college made an offer; the selectboard rejected that offer with a “thanks, but no thanks,” saying it preferred to try to rebuild on the current site on its own terms. The college said, “cool,” and withdrew its offer. No big deal. Two years later, and after months of committee work (of which I was a part), the selectboard determined the town could not raise enough grant money, donations or other sources of revenue to make financing the building on its own feasible and appealed to the college for help. End of tempest.
• More importantly, this spring the college responded to the town’s direct solicitation with an offer that is generous and community minded. To suggest otherwise is beyond the pale. The college responded primarily because, as Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz writes in a letter to the editor in this issue, there were several interesting opportunities in play at this time that could help reshape the downtown and achieve several long-term town objectives, including: keeping the municipal building in the heart of the downtown, razing the Lazarus building and deeding the land to the town to make a safer entrance to the Marble Works Business District, and improving prospects to develop a commercial building at the base of the Cross Street Bridge.
• Finally, and most importantly, Bingham is deaf to town residents and businesses who have said the town’s tax capacity is at its limit. Financing a municipal building project of $7.5 million or more would add close to 8 cents to the tax rate, on top of the 4 cents just added to finance the new fire department, a couple pennies more to fund the new police department a few years ago, and the added local options taxes to fund the town’s share of the Cross Street Bridge. That’s a lot of new taxes on a small town in the past few years, and there are other important things to address, including roads, sidewalks, economic development, other municipal needs, plus funds to fight crime and the explosion of drugs on the street. Adding 8 cents to the tax rate for a new municipal building simply isn’t in the cards. Taxpayers have made that point loud and clear.
Bingham is also being misleading by suggesting the funding of the municipal building could be done by shifting other tax revenues (excess funds from the local options tax and taxation from the natural gas pipeline) to cover the cost of a new municipal building and not raise tax rates. But it’s a bogus argument. Debt incurred has to be paid, and if naysayers don’t want college involvement, then residents are going to pay the piper one way or the other.
That said, this overblown tempest provides an opportunity to step back a few paces and engage Middlebury residents in a more creative dialogue in terms of the money allotted for the project, its design and function, and how the municipal building at the proposed Osborne site would mesh with current town assets and features.
Of the important issues raised recently, Ilsley Library patrons are right to question whether there would be adequate parking capacity, and board members and directors are right to argue for adequate ways to better carry out their mission. (They are mistaken, however, to assume the Osborne site was theirs on which to expand, or that voters would embrace spending more tax dollars for an expanded facility. See the above argument on tax capacity.)
In light of the commercial building the college would hopefully be able to attract next to the Cross Street Bridge, town residents are right to expect some town voice in that building’s appearance and function, parking capacity and other needs beneficial to the downtown, such as improving parts of the riverfront south of Middlebury Falls to the train trestle south of the Cross Street Bridge.
Adding more voices on this project from throughout the community will undoubtedly help prevent unforeseen problems and may suggest creative improvements that could have been overlooked, and will certainly add support to the project when it comes time to vote. Oddly enough, for a project that is so far along, one problem the town faces is that the cart is slightly ahead of the horse in terms of public involvement largely because the proposal landed on the selectboard’s doorstep without much public discussion or transparency.
The current “squall in a spoonful of water” provides impetus to get that community conversation underway sooner than later.
Angelo S. Lynn