Board seeks voter OK for $600,000 to fix VUHS roof
VERGENNES — Residents of the five Addison Northwest Supervisory Union towns will be asked in a district-wide May 14 vote to support a five-year, $600,000 loan to put a new roof on the leaky Vergennes Union High School classroom wing and auditorium.
In Vergennes, balloting will coincide with the city council’s request for a $1.45 million bond to build a new North Main Street police station, and school and city officials are looking at holding a joint informational meeting, possibly on May 7.
If voters back the $600,000 loan, payments would add about $10 of taxes per $100,000 of assessed home value, according to a preliminary estimate offered on Tuesday by ANwSU business manager Kathy Cannon.
That estimate is before any adjustments for towns’ common levels of appraisals (CLAs), but the CLAs in ANwSU towns will not move the number much, she said. Most residents in ANwSU towns do not pay taxes based on the full values of their homes because of Vermont’s education funding law and would not feel the full effect of the tax increase.
The VUHS board on Thursday adopted the warning for the May 14 vote at a special meeting held at the ANwSU office in Vergennes and also attended by Vergennes Mayor Bill Benton, City Manager Mel Hawley and two other city council members.
NO $2 MILLION BOND
Board members after about 90 minutes of discussion chose not to put forward a $2 million bond that would have also upgraded the school’s aging kitchen and cafeteria, which feature equipment dating back to the school’s construction more than 50 years ago; replaced its auditorium’s heating and ventilation system, which they said is so loud it cannot be used during performances; and made site improvements they also called critical, including stopping water infiltration.
But the board expects to hold another vote asking to fund those improvements in November, once it is clearly allowed by a state law that forbids a municipality from holding more than two “similar” bond votes in a 12-month period.
Cannon said ANwSU officials had a legal opinion that a $2 million bond focusing strictly on maintenance would not have violated that law.
But aldermen urged board members to tread carefully after the two earlier bond defeats, both by significant margins. A $6.5 million proposal with major auditorium upgrades, an artificial turf field and a six-lane track lost on Election Day in November. A split bond proposal, one for $4.2 million for almost all the work inside and around the school and one for $2 million for the field and track, then lost in early February.
City officials said residents were unhappy both that not enough was cut from the building project and that the board did not wait until Town Meeting Day to hold the second vote.
Alderwoman Lynn Donnelly said she “absolutely supports” the school, but that many residents had “discomfort” about those issues, and that some might be prepared to challenge another vote on the legality question.
“Wouldn’t it be in everyone’s best interest … to wait that 12 months, anyway?” Donnelly said.
VUHS board member Neil Kamman of Vergennes agreed that a legal opinion might not be enough to sway the feelings of residents.
“Public opinion is what it is,” Kamman said.
Hawley proposed what the VUHS board eventually adopted. It is not technically a bond, but a loan of up to five years allowed elsewhere in municipal law for the purpose of capital improvements.
“What is the downside of holding a vote on May 14 on having the roof fixed?” Hawley said, adding later that city officials had heard from residents, “‘The roof is a no-brainer. You’ve got to fix the roof.’ Why don’t we take advantage of that?”
VUHS board chairman Don Jochum of Addison said there would be a downside of waiting until November to vote on a $600,000 roof fix.
“I don’t know if we can wait 12 more months of having water running into the computer closets,” Jochum said.
Board members discussed whether the other elements of the $2 million bond they had discussed on the Monday before could wait.
Those elements included upgrading the controls and distribution system for the heating system, which board member Jeffry Glassberg said workers now have to “babysit”; the kitchen, which he said “is original” and “has given us the service it can give us”; the auditorium’s marginal heating and ventilation system; and needed “pedestrian safety,” paving and stormwater control work around the building.
Glassberg said the board had learned from its mistakes and boiled down its proposal to what absolutely had to be done.
“It’s not to say the previous items weren’t warranted, but we’ve heard the message,” he said.
But given the legal question, the board reluctantly accepted a motion from board member Laurie Gutowski to focus on the roof on May 14. One reason members said it was logical to do so was because at this point, work on the kitchen and cafeteria could not begin until the summer of 2014 regardless of whether voters funded that element in May or November.
“If we can’t get the kitchen work done this summer, it’s ridiculous to include it, anyway,” Jochum said.
One board member did not vote for the $600,000 plan, Ferrisburgh’s Kurt Haigis, who said it would be cheaper in the long run to do more work sooner.
“They (voters) don’t understand if we do more now, it will cost less later,” Haigis said.
Donnelly offered what she hoped would be a silver lining when the board returns with a proposal in November to do what they say are the remaining critical elements.
“If you hold the smaller vote now … you have time to get people out there and educate (voters) for the November ballot,” Donnelly said.
The board also plans to roll the financing for the roof into the November plan, meaning it will probably again be a $2 million plan, one that would eliminate the $600,000 roof debt if approved in May. Hawley said that it would be legal to change financing plans for the roof to a cheaper approach.
Given the need for education before that vote and the general backing city officials offered on Thursday, Superintendent Tom O’Brien said he hoped they would be also ready to step up in November.
“We’re going to ask your support in November to explain this to the citizens,” O’Brien said.
All board members agreed on the need to take better care of the facility in the future. Glassberg outlined a “four-point” plan the board plans to follow to “change the culture” of maintenance there:
• Bonding to meet the immediate needs described in the $2 million draft discussed on Monday.
• Devoting more money in the budget to maintenance. Glassberg said the board studied comparable schools’ budgets and learned VUHS spent less than any on maintenance.
• Creating a capital improvement fund that voters will separately consider on Town Meeting Days. That fund, as has been the case for the three ANwSU elementary schools, will be used to help pay for long-term building needs and reduce reliance on bonding, Glassberg said. “We need to break that cycle, just as the elementary schools have done,” he said.
• Waiting until the 2000 bond that expanded and renovated the school is paid off in 2020 to make major future upgrades. “(We’ll) look at that debt reserve capacity as a resource,” Glassberg said.
City officials said they liked the sound of the new approach.
“I think the four-point plan is an exciting message,” Benton said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.