Renewed look at building new town office in Midd prompts review of priorities

The revived effort to conceptualize a new town office building for Middlebury has two apparent goals: to tear down much of the existing building and replace it with a smaller, more modern and efficient office space, and — by doing so — save on fuel costs.

Middlebury residents rejected a proposal in 2002 for a $6 million proposal that called for a 13,982-square-foot, two-story structure on the same site. That proposal would have incorporated the town police headquarters and kept the existing municipal gymnasium.

Current plans are to build a smaller building that also would keep the existing gymnasium for recreational purposes. The building can be smaller because the police department moved to newly renovated quarters several years ago in what had been the town’s water treatment facility off Seymour Street. To make the new facility more affordable to taxpayers, the idea of putting extra space in the new town offices to rent to commercial tenants is one possibility.

“The bottom line in the whole thing is we might be able to create a new facility that would serve the town’s needs and reduce the town’s cost (of construction and ongoing maintenance),” said Town Manager Bill Finger in a story in today’s Addison Independent.

But Finger also notes two pitfalls to that idea.

First, if the town builds space for commercial lease, it is competing with the private sector in a market in which there is already a surplus of rental space in the downtown. Second, any space used by commercial enterprises would not be on the town’s grand list (as it is in a municipal building), effectively keeping the grand list from growing and spreading out the property tax burden.

There is also a third pitfall: the base cost of the building, which adds directly to the town’s debt load and property tax obligation.

While we are all for promoting energy efficiency where practical, it’s a stretch to suggest that town taxpayers will save enough money on lower fuel costs to efficiently offset the $4-5 million cost, plus interest over 20-30 years, of a new building. It is true that the energy use at a new building will be significantly less (and that’s a worthy goal), but the suggestion that those savings are justification for a new municipal building just doesn’t add up.

If the town wants to argue that it needs nicer office space to do better work, that public restrooms could be more prevalent and accessible, and that other additions (like larger conference rooms that benefit a greater sector of the community) add important assets to the town, that’s an argument the community can rightly debate and ask whether this is the most important priority on the horizon.

Residents, for example, also know that the town’s fire department is looking for a new, combined building in Middlebury, or to expand or renovate their existing buildings in East Middlebury and Middlebury — projects that also carry a multi-million-dollar price tag.

In light of the police department’s new digs, taxpayers here have a right to wonder why town government needs brand new facilities to do their work when most businesses in town are making due with facilities that are equally as old if not far older. The point isn’t to praise the inherent inefficiencies of old buildings, but to suggest that a building’s structure is not as important as a business’s — or town’s — management and work ethic of its employees.

The question residents should rightly ponder, on this issue, is whether a new town office is the appropriate priority for the town’s scarce finances. Will a new building spur greater employee efficiencies and productivity, for example, or would more training and seminars be a better use of town dollars? Will a new building help attract new industry to town and attract new jobs, or would spending $50,000 a year for 20 years specifically toward economic development (and that’s still just one-fifth the cost of a $5 million building) yield more new industry and new jobs in town? Will a new building create more recreational opportunities in town, or improve teen programs, or implement town wide fitness programs to improve the health of our citizens?

In short, are there not dozens of ways to more effectively use those resources than to sink them into a building for the comfort of town employees and the consequent fuel savings? Plus, the idea of competing for commercial renters in the downtown seems ludicrous when the effect of that policy could make it more difficult for tax-paying property owners to survive.

It’s all fuel for thought as this initiative once again tries to find some legs. It’s never a bad idea to seek ways to improve energy efficiency in municipal buildings, but residents should rightly ask whether it is a cost-effective priority for the times or whether those same tax dollars could be used more productively elsewhere.


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Addison County Independent

58 Maple Street
Middlebury, VT 05753

Phone: 802.388.4944
Fax: 802.388.3100