Town hall forum attracts about 20
Audience questions center on building quality, costs
POWNAL — The first of two planned public forums before a vote on a proposed new town hall project attracted relatively few people Tuesday, but those present had many questions for town officials and others involved in the project.
About 20 people attended the approximately-one hour forum, held at 6 p.m. in the Pownal Elementary School gym. A second forum is scheduled for 6 p.m. in the same location today.
The forum comes before a vote on Tuesday, Oct. 29, which will ask the town to approve a bond not exceeding $600,000 for a new town hall, to consist of modular construction for core offices and an attached, circa-1840s schoolhouse for Select Board meetings and a Pownal History Center. The schoolhouse would be moved from its current location on North Pownal Road to town-owned property on nearby Center Street.
At a meeting in June, the Select Board unanimously voted to move ahead with this proposal, put forth by Messina Builders of Pownal and Pauline Guntlow of the Pownal Historical Society.
Select Board member Bob Jarvis began the forum with an about 20-minute presentation on the project, including its costs and why the town views it as necessary.
"What I'm excited about, and what a lot of us are excited about, is that it does use the old Schoolhouse #8," Jarvis said. "This schoolhouse is one of less than 800 remaining one-room schoolhouses in the United States, and very few in Vermont. I'm really excited that we're preserving that."
As part of the vetting process for project proposals, Jarvis said, he toured the schoolhouse.
"That schoolhouse is really in pretty good shape," he said.
The hope is that the history center will also attract visitors, he said.
The building would be 3,678 square feet on the main floor, with the history center/storage space below of 1,063 square feet.
Much of Jarvis' presentation also centered on costs — both upcoming and past. "That's going to be the thing that's on your minds," he said.
The estimate for total project costs is $775,000; the town plans to use $175,000 from its municipal office fund, with a 20-year bond for the remaining $600,000, Jarvis said.
This shorter-term bond saves the town about $124,000 over the life of the loan, versus a 30-year bond, he said.
Guntlow said the project estimate includes contingency funds, "somewhere between" $30,0000 and $50,000.
"That's the good part of modular construction," she said. "There's very little changes. Could there be other issues? Yeah. But we do have some contingency planned."
The estimated cost per taxable parcel, per year for the project is $25.19, Jarvis said.
"It's really not very much," he said. "We're kind of excited about that."
One audience member questioned whether individuals who live in trailers would each pay that $25.19 cost.
"It's per taxable parcel, so each mobile home would pay the $25," replied Ellen Strohmaier, town treasurer. "It's each taxable parcel, period, it doesn't matter who, what, where."
"And again, it's $25 a year," Jarvis added.
Jarvis also discussed ongoing costs and associated health risks at the current town hall, which the town has been trying to replace for over 20 years.
"The current town hall does pose a direct and immediate threat," Jarvis said, pointing to ongoing mold issues in the building. "First and foremost, it's just not a healthy workplace."
At any time, he said, the state could require the town to get a new building, and then the town would "lose all choice."
The town has already spent over $31,000 on remediation of mold and asbestos from 2012 through May 2016, he said, along with just over $30,000 on adding sidewalks and rails.
And, he said, the town has received a $90,000 estimate to remediate the mold permanently — but that wouldn't be needed if voters approve the new town hall.
Jarvis also briefly discussed how, from November 2013 to March 2019 alone, the town spent close to $60,000 on costs associated with pursuing a new town hall, including architecture, mailings and removing the former Bartels Lodge building.
After Jarvis' presentation, the Select Board, town officials, and representatives from the building and design team answered many questions from the audience.
Suzanne Caraman, a prior member of the board, asked what the $775,000 cost estimate includes.
Guntlow, who is acting as project developer, said the cost includes everything she could think of, including asphalt, parking, and excavation.
Jarvis said the cost estimate does not include furniture.
Caraman also asked Guntlow if she planned to bill for her time. She said she did not.
"It's unfair, I think, to ask you do to do this pro bono," said Jim Winchester, who attended the meeting. "Some compensation should be going your way."
One woman asked if the project included energy-saving measures.
Guntlow said she sent the plans up to Efficiency Vermont, and they could not think of anything more that could be done to make the building, including the schoolhouse, more energy-efficient.
Audience member also had multiple questions for George Burge, regional sales manager for Preferred Building Systems of Claremont, New Hampshire.
One man asked if the building would be able to "breathe," to protect it from mold and mildew.
Burge said the building has a ventilation system, and intake and exhaust go through the foundation sill.
"The fresh air is coming in, and stale air is going out," he said. "If you cook fish at night, you're not going to smell fish in the morning."
State Rep. Nelson Brownell, former chairman of the Select Board, asked Burge how many municipal buildings his company has built.
Probably 20, he said, including a public works building in Greenfield, Massachusetts, that he was personally involved with.
In response to another question about product guarantees, Burge said the modular building would include a one-year warranty on workmanship and any defects, and other individual components like roof shingles and window glass also have their own separate warranties.
Jason Olansky, a former member of the Select Board, asked how much money would remain in the municipal office fund after the town uses the $175,000 toward the project.
Jarvis said about $49,000 will remain. Strohmaier clarified that that fund is specifically designated for the municipal office.
Caraman also asked the board if they've checked into grants to help with things like furniture for the new building.
Bryan Harris, chairman of the board, said they've talked about reaching out to local businesses for donations.
"Honestly, it was suggested we search Craigslist," he said.
Jarvis said they've looked into grants, but a lot of them aren't applicable.
"We have discussed trying to do fundraising," Harris added. "Any additional ideas are greatly appreciated."
Strohmaier also asked the board if they could still use the current furniture in the new town hall, given the mold problem.
"That's a good point," Harris said. "I hadn't thought of that."
Harris, referencing the fact that contingency funds allocated in the project cost, said they will address that issue if the project passes.
If the vote passes, Harris said the town intends to start work quickly.
"We intend to break ground as soon as possible," added Jarvis.
Voters can cast ballots on the bond vote from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 29 at the Pownal Center Fire Station, 2872 North Pownal Road. Early voting is also available at the town offices on Saturday, Oct. 19 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 27 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Those in need of absentee ballots can call 802-823-0116 ext. 101 or email the town clerk at email@example.com.
Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.
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