Public safety building: Williamstown voters get a ‘do-over’
By David Delcore
Staff Writer | April 08,2013
WILLIAMSTOWN — It’s official: May 6 will be “do-over” day in Williamstown when voters will be given a second shot at deciding whether to come up with the money needed to finance a new public safety building and to pay for an after-school program.
Less than 48 hours after the School Board was forced by petition to schedule a special election to reconsider voters’ narrow Town Meeting Day rejection of $40,000 to pay for an after-school program, the Select Board grudgingly agreed to schedule a concurrent revote on the proposed public safety building.
They sure weren’t happy about it.
Presented with a petition that they ultimately “rejected” but could not ignore, board members unilaterally agreed to put the project they supported, and voters narrowly approved last month, back on the ballot May 6.
The board arrived at its decision after briefly discussing its options behind closed doors during a special session Thursday. When they emerged members and some of those in attendance used words like “unfortunate,” “aggravating,” “frustrating,” and “heart-breaking” to describe how they were feeling, while at the same time expressing their shared fear that delays associated with a second vote — a vote they had hoped to avoid — would push the price of the project well beyond the $2.5 million figure that voters approved, 298-283, last month.
“This sucks,” Board Chairman Larry Hebert said.
Selectman Rodney Graham agreed, and, in the end, could not bring himself to vote for a motion to put what he characterized as a painstakingly planned, voter-approved, “shovel-ready” project back on the ballot.
“This is not in the best interest of the town,” Graham grumbled.
Although Graham didn’t get any argument from the rest of the board, the general consensus after consulting multiple lawyers was that the town’s options were limited and the only risk-free solution was for the board to schedule a special election of its own accord.
“We’re in a no-win situation, no matter how we do this thing,” Hebert said after ticking down the list of options — in his view none of them good — outlined by the town’s bond counsel Paul Giuliani.
Though Giuliani advised the board that he believes the petition Normand Peloquin dropped off at the town offices first thing Thursday morning didn’t contain enough signatures to force the board to schedule a re-vote he acknowledged others would argue that it did.
The petition was signed by more than 5 percent of the town’s registered voters — the figure typically needed to force a revote, like the one scheduled by the School Board earlier in the week — but less than the 10 percent Giuliani believes is needed to reconsider a bond issue.
Reading a letter written by Giuliani, Hebert said the board had three choices. It could reject the petition as insufficient while honoring its request for a re-vote, reject the petition as insufficient and proceed with plans for a mid-April groundbreaking, or accept the petition as valid and schedule a special election.
“‘Of the possible outcomes (rejecting the petition and warning the re-vote it requested) is the only one free of litigation,’” Hebert said, reading from the letter written by Giuliani. “‘A taxpayer on either side of the issue could challenge any one of the other possible options.’”
That, Hebert explained, would be problematic because, according to Giuliani, “the mere threat of an appeal” would freeze the town’s pending request for financing through the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank for at least 31 days.
In this case, Hebert said time is probably money and there really isn’t much the town can do about it.
According to Hebert, Jack Barnes, of Summit Catamount Construction, has indicated it will be difficult for his firm to stick to its low bid of $2,060,000 now that plans for an April groundbreaking have gone by the boards. Citing the potential loss of subcontractors among other things, Hebert said Barnes has estimated costs could easily increase by 5 to 7 percent — $103,000 to $150,000 — due to the delay, and the number could go much higher if the low bidder for the building’s mechanical work backs out. More than $200,000 separated the chosen subcontractor for that work and the next lowest bidder.
Selectman Matt Rouleau said the blame for that rests squarely with those who waited until the last possible day to file a petition attempting to overturn the Town Meeting Day vote.
“We’re going to have to re-vote this thing and it’s just a real shame that we’re going to have to spend more money than we really had to,” Rouleau said.
Resident Art Kramer agreed, but said the board shouldn’t belabor the point.
“The increased cost is already there, just by the sheer fact we’re sitting here right now,” Kramer said.
The board also heard from one resident, who was having misgivings about signing the petition, and another who voted against the proposal on Town Meeting Day but had changed his mind.
Larry Ellison told board members his “no” vote last month will be a “yes” vote next month and Rob Hepburn applauded them for the work they’d done suggesting he might have “put the cart before the horse” when he put his pen to the petition at the dump last Saturday.
Hepburn said he never questioned the need for the proposed public safety building, but had believed it could be constructed in the heart of the village — an idea he has since abandoned due to the sheer size of the structure.
That said, Hepburn told a board ignoring the petition based on one attorney’s opinion that it might not have quite enough signatures wouldn’t be wise.
“The fact is I don’t give a crap what the lawyers say … you have 137 people (who signed the petition),” he said. “You need to revote this and you need to educate those people.”
As for concern that the price of the building could climb, Hepburn said that ship had already sailed.
“We’re already screwed cost-wise,” he said, suggesting if the board made a mistake it was in assuming the vote wouldn’t be challenged.
“We should have put this building out to bid knowing in Williamstown, as it is, it was going to come to this,” he said. “It was not going to be an 80-percent-20-percent-go. There’s just too many people (in town) objecting to everything that you guys do.”
Town Clerk Barbara Graham said the May 6 special election will be held at the current fire station on Depot Street. Polls will be open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Regardless of the outcome the up-or-down vote on the proposed public safety building will be the last word on the matter in the foreseeable future. If the bond issue is approved a second time, the new emergency services facility will be built on town-owned land on Meadow Street. If it is rejected, Hebert said plans to bring the town’s fire and ambulance departments under one, energy-efficient roof will be shelved for at least a year.