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Waitsfield receives $750,000 grant for town offices

Waitsfield will receive a $750,000 Community Development Block Grant to be used towards new town offices at the Farm Stand location.

The town received word that its grant application had been approved by phone on Monday, May 13, and that the approval was for the Farm Stand parcel because that was the location for which the town held a grant public hearing on March 4.

After that public hearing the town submitted its grant application seeking the $750,000 grant for one of two sites, the Farm Stand parcel or the former Methodist Church in Waitsfield Village.

At the select board's May 13 meeting, the board discussed the grant with the public and discussed how to proceed. Prior to receipt of the grant, the select board had assigned a committee to develop a voter survey asking voters about preferences for new town offices.

A bond vote for $1.6 million to build new town offices at the Farm Stand site failed at Town Meeting, garnering 40 percent yes votes. Because there was continued support for renovating the church, the select board wanted to survey voters before attempting another bond vote. The board was also trying to balance the interests of some of its members and some of the public who wanted to see the search for a new town office site expanded beyond the church and Farm Stand.

The receipt of the grant consolidated board support for doing whatever it takes not to lose the $750,000.

"We've been informed that the town has received the full amount of the grant we requested," said town administrator (and grant writer) Valerie Capels, to applause from the board and the room this week.

She went on to explain that the grant was awarded for the Farm Stand parcel and that if the town wants to try to bond for the church project it will have to go back before the board for approval or to reapply.

"So now that we have the grant, we think the Farm Stand is a slam dunk. We have to ask ourselves, is it a slam dunk? The grant approval is for the Farm Stand; anything else, we have to reapply. Should we continue and see if the Farm Stand is where people want it to go, or should we bring the Farm Stand back with its new price to voters?" board member Logan Cooke asked.

Board chair Paul Hartshorn asked about the status of the survey and board member Chris Pierson said it was close but the committee was looking for a little more board guidance.

"It would be prudent to get the survey before voters and get some idea of how they feel," Hartshorn said.

Capels explained to the board that the funds could not be accessed until a bond vote was approved and an environmental assessment was completed. She said the bond reviewers urged her to begin the environmental assessment for both sites soon.

"I told the bond board last week that I expected a bond vote either in the fall or at Town Meeting next year," she said.

"Our survey was a little broader than the church and the Farm Stand. What happens if we send out a poll and another site comes back as the favorite for the town. Is there the opportunity to readjust?" asked board member Scott Kingsbury.

"I don't know yet. We'd probably have to go through another application process and I don't know whether it would jeopardize our grant allocation," Capels said, noting that the letter of award with the grant conditions and timeline would be sent shortly.

"If we're going to send out a poll that is broader than the two sites we're setting ourselves up for, are we willing to jeopardize $750,000 to go and have people weigh in beyond those sites?" Kingsbury asked.

"I think we need to bring a vote back to the voters in the most efficient way to find out what they want to do. Talking to voters with $750,000 on the table should make it feasible. Now we can build the town offices for about $500,000 if we build at the Farm Stand. It should be a done deal. Trying to rent looked like the best option to me up until we got this gift and I don't want to lose that opportunity to do something great," said board member Bill Parker.

Board members made various motions that bond votes be brought forth in amounts that ranged from a total of $950,000 (with the grant) to the full estimated cost of $1.3 million for the Farm Stand (including the grant) for net amounts that ranged from bonding for $200,000 to $550,000.

Architect Bill Maclay, who worked on the town office project, said that the $1.3 million budget included a 15 percent contingency that the town office task force included for both the Farm Stand as well as the church budget of $2.1 million.

"We had 40 percent of voters willing to spend $1.6 million at Town Meeting and then we got a lot of feedback. It was too big, too expensive. So we reduced it. Scott has pointed out at least $200,000 worth of flexibility in the proposed budget, so if you bonded for $350,000 or $400,000 to be matched by the grant, people are going to have a much different perspective," said Brian Shupe, who served on the town office task force committee.

"If it goes out to vote and gets voted down again, what are we going to do?" asked town resident Neil Johnson.

"If it gets voted down at $250,000 or $350,000 we're in trouble," Hartshorn said.

"If it gets voted down then we have plenty of time to figure out what to do and we're not potentially squandering the grant money. We're all aware that we want to know the town's opinion. We know some opinions and we have this great opportunity. It would be fiscally stupid of us to not try and utilize it," said Cooke.

"I think this project for Waitsfield is about compromise. Not only compromise about the site but on the building as well. We can save a quarter million on the new building right now. Cut out $130,000 for paving, reduce some of the windows and reduce some of the finishes," said Kingsbury.

Town resident Kirsten Siebert, a proponent of rehabilitating the church for town offices, said that the church has still not gotten a fair shake from the select board.

"I still feel giving people the chance to bond for the church would be fair. Put it out there and see what people say," Siebert said.

"We could lose our grant," Hartshorn responded.

"People also never had the chance to vote for a $400,000 bond vote either," Shupe said to Siebert.

The board voted on a motion to put up a bond for $550,000 but voted it down and returned to discussions.

"I think we're going too fast. Let's take another month and do the survey. If we don't do this we're going to screw it up. Because of the grant, I think we can narrow the survey down to the church or the Farm Stand," said Pierson.

Pierson made a motion to proceed with a survey about the church and the Farm Stand and with those results revisit the idea of a bond vote in the fall.

"We need to make sure we've got a good read on the taxpayers. We owe it to the grant reviewers to make sure we ask the voters which way they want to go. We need to do this as quickly as we can, not wait for fall or Town Meeting, so I'll second your motion, with all haste being applied," said Parker.

That motion passed, leading to people who were there for that hearing getting up to leave. As town resident Leo Laferriere was leaving, he stopped to address the board.

"I've lived in this town since 1969 and have over 100 years of combined service and positions. I've never been so disappointed in the government of this community as I am now. I'm sorry to say that. I have the qualifications and experience to say that," Laferriere said.

"Don't you feel it is important to do what everyone in town wants?" asked Kingsbury.

"You can try for everybody, but that won't happen. The way to do it is to vote for the Farm Stand. If it is defeated then go find out what we don't know," Laferriere said.

"We are trying to find out what we don't know," Kingsbury said as another resident rose from the corner and said, "Sure, but you're the leaders of the town and I don't see that much leadership coming from this board."

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