We appreciate the divergence of opinion expressed in today’s letters to the editor concerning Middlebury’s proposed municipal building/recreation facility. We also agree, in a nod to civility on this Halloween eve, that future discussion be less descriptive and honed to the issues at hand.
We would propose, however, that the primary issue the community faces is not the alleged conflict of interest charges of two selectmen, but how to finance the construction of a new municipal building and renovation or replacement of the gymnasium.
It would be a refreshing dose of honesty to have just one opponent of the current proposal step forward with a realistic plan to pay for a new municipal building and a renovated gym on the existing site, or to even acknowledge the burdensome tax impact that would place on Middlebury residents.
Rather, the conversation tilts toward the holier-than-thou righteousness of citizens with a duty to uphold the town’s conflict of interest ordinance, and a dismissive sleight of hand suggesting that surely there is a better way forward and money from somewhere will keep taxes from jumping 7 or more cents on the tax rate.
That’s not fear-mongering. That’s just the reality if town residents end up paying the full freight of any project of this magnitude.
But put that tax hike aside for the moment and let’s review how the town arrived at this juncture:
• Three committees were formed more than a year ago to study this issue: the municipal building oversight committee, a finance committee and a committee focused on plans to renovate the gymnasium. All efforts were geared to rebuild or build new on the current site.
The oversight committee worked with architects on an initial plan that pegged construction at about $6 million and climbing, and that was a diminished version of what had originally been proposed. When it was obvious that costs could not be substantially reduced, the architects were told to hold off on any further work until the committees could get a better handle on how it might be able to finance the project. That was last spring. A simultaneous study of work to be done on the gymnasium came in at $1.1 million, but even that included the bare essentials. That’s a total of $7 million-plus, and costs were likely to climb.
To be able to finance a bond of that magnitude, the town was looking at a 7 cent hike on the tax rate; and that’s on top of other inflationary increases and projected increases from changes in school taxes. All committees had been working on the premise that the maximum tax rate hike the town could afford for the project (and get voter approval) was closer to 2 cents.
The finance committee was charged with seeking any and all means of funding — grants, donations, bake sales, whatever — to help mitigate the cost to taxpayers. After several months, no big donors or grants were found. The college was asked. Officials there politely declined. They were happy for the town to pursue the initiative, and happy to see the old building razed and rebuilt at the existing site, but the project would be up to the taxpayers to fund — just like in most Vermont towns.
The bottom line was plain: After numerous months of committee meetings, architectural work and cost estimates, the selectboard and the committees involved had a choice: abandon the project and keep the status quo, or appeal again to the college for any other solution. They appealed to the college and after several weeks of internal discussion the college proposed a plan that would not only help finance the municipal building, but also resolve two other long-term obstacles.
The selectboard learned of the offer, made it public and after five months of discussion, voted 5-1 on Oct. 8 to present the plan to a public vote. Two weeks later, the conflict of interest charges were levied.
Now, it has never been a secret that Selectman Victor Nuovo was a long-time professor at the college. Nor is it a secret that he’s been mostly retired for 20 years, and that he continues to receive a pension and the sort of ameneties as befits a retired professor emeritus who continues to work, on his own accord, on scholarly endeavors. Indeed, the selectboard elected Nuovo to be chair of the finance committee and a member of the oversight committee being fully aware of Nuovo’s ties to the college. It was also Mr. Nuovo, for those who have forgotten, who argued so passionately two years ago that the municipal building should be rebuilt on the current site, if at all possible.
His disappointment over five months of committee meetings was realizing that outside funds could not be found, and accepting the reality that if the town were to move forward with plans to build a new facility, it had to consider other options.
Knowing this history, residents might rightly ask: If certain residents were concerned about the apparent conflict of interest, why not speak up sooner? And why would the selectboard appoint Mr. Nuovo to lead the finance committee if they were concerned about any conflict of interest?
Residents might also ponder this: If the college had volunteered the $5.5 million to help fund a new municipal building and gym on the existing site, would current opponents be alleging conflict of interest violations?
But let’s put that self-evident answer aside. Let’s nullify the 5-1 vote. Let’s conduct a revote of that same measure, but this time disqualify two out of seven selectboard members and then hold that a majority of the full board needs to support the measure for it to pass. With five selectmen voting, that means it has to pass 4-1.
That’s the democracy some opponents are so righteously demanding?
Even so, let’s move on.
We would hope a vote of the selectboard would move the proposal forward so a majority of town residents can decide the issue. Opponents suggest that is what they want as well. If we would take those opponents at their word, then they would encourage Selectman Craig Bingham to vote in favor and send the measure to the public, 5-0.
Failing that, perhaps a more thoughtful majority of the board will prevail.
Failing a majority vote, a citizens’ petition to move the measure to a public vote is certain. That requires 10 percent of the registered voters, not the 5 percent reported in a prior news story and this column, which is 460 registered voters.
In short, conflict of interest or not, the measure will come to a public vote. Again, it is hard to see this current controversy as anything other than a sideshow, a tactic to delay and incite negative feelings.
But there are more important questions to ask: namely, is this proposal what is best for the town?
We have three thoughts:
• It is not a perfect plan. In a perfect world, taxpayers would approve a $15 million community center on the existing site with a visitor center and public restrooms, an outdoor plaza, and stunning architecture befitting the town’s majesty. It would be a legacy gift to generations hence. Cost would not be an issue.
• Our reality is the town has been debating the question of a new municipal building for 20 years. Through those debates the one clear priority was to keep the municipal building downtown. This is the only realistic proposal town residents have seen in the past two decades. It keeps the municipal building downtown with a new, energy-efficient structure. It builds a new gymasium in an existing town hub of recreational activity. It opens up access to the Marble Works Business District, something the town had been set to pay for (thus, again, providing a way to lower town taxes.) And, it’s affordable for taxpayers.
• Yes, there are problems to be worked out. The proposal is not ideal. But neither is the proposal set in stone. There is time to work out the parking and traffic flow at Mary Hogan Elementary. There is time to finetune plans and establish total costs. But there is not time to take the proposal off the table, nor is the town likely to see a repeat offer anytime soon.
Town Meeting Day is the time to vote on a measure to move beyond the status quo and find a solution to a 20-year concern. We respectfully ask the selectboard to move that question to a community vote.
Angelo S. Lynn