By Lisa Loomis
It was standing room only at the Waitsfield Select Board meeting this week as a roomful of people and a troop of Boy Scouts were on hand to discuss a petition calling for the town to stop work on building a new town office in favor of purchasing the soon-to-be-empty People’s United Bank building.
At the April 27 meeting board members acknowledged receipt of the petition but took no action on it. The Boy Scouts were in attendance to hear the discussion as part of a Civics badge.
Larry Corthell, who created the petition, asked the board for a response to the petition, adding that “The bank is assessed at $714,000 but there is talk about it selling for a lot less than that.”
Board chair Paul Hartshorn said that if the town takes a look at the viability of the bank it might cost money to “do the study.”
BROUGHT OUT AND STUDIED
“What are you going to study?” asked town resident Neil Johnson.
“There are things that have got to be brought out and studied,” Hartshorn said.
The bank has a vault and it is approximately 3,300 square feet. It features the main lobby, a full kitchen, four private offices, a conference room, the vault, two handicap-accessible bathrooms and upstairs storage space. While the bank owns the building, it pays maintenance fees to Crosspoint Associates, owners of the shopping center. The bank plans to move out in early July.
“We have an existing building and we should take a look at it,” resident Serena Fox commented.
“How much property do you think we should take off the tax rolls?” Hartshorn asked in response.
WHAT WE NEED
“That’s a good question. But we still have a building that has a lot of what we need,” Fox responded.
Board member Scott Kingsbury said he thought the town should take a look at the bank building. He expressed concern about the common area maintenance fees that Crosspoint Associates would charge the town, pointing out that some tenants of the shopping center received unexpected and supplemental bills of up to $40,000.
“I’ve also heard that Crosspoint is interested in owning the building and putting in a restaurant. But the building does seem fitting for our needs,” Kingsbury said.
MONETIZE THE COST
Several residents, including Jim Leyton, asked the select board to take a real and serious look at the bank building, including monetizing the cost of the town buying and moving into the bank.
“We should explore the bank as a serious option. It makes more sense than building the town office in the middle of nowhere versus in the heart of the town’s commercial center, but the board would need to agree to suspend the plans for the Farm Stand,” Leyton said.
Waitsfield has put out to bid a project to build a new town office on an open parcel of land at the north end of the village known as the Farm Stand site. The town has a $750,000 grant for the project plus voter authorization to spend up to $650,000 of taxpayers’ money. Recently the town applied for an additional $225,000 in grant funding when bids came in higher than expected. To date the town has spent about $140,000 in architectural, engineering and permitting fees.
COST MORE MONEY
The town has asked for and received a 30-day extension on accepting or rejecting the bids that came in for the new town office project. That deadline was originally the end of May. The town will know by mid-May whether the additional grant funds are approved.
At Town Meeting in 2013, voters rejected a proposal to bond for $1.6 million for a town office. At a second vote, voters approved borrowing up to $650,000 to augment a state grant of $750,000 and the $100,000 donation of the land for a project that was expected to cost less than $1.2 million.
Board member Logan Cooke told the crowd that he felt switching from the current project to the bank would end up costing more money.
TOO FAR AHEAD
“It’s unfortunate that this didn’t come up a year and a half ago. If we stop now, the money we put into the new building is lost. We already own that piece of land. I think we’re too far ahead at this point to look somewhere else,” Cooke said.
“This town is like a monkey caught with its hand in the cookie jar, saying it’s too late. You’re talking about a town of 1,700 people and you’re going to spend almost $2 million on the project. You haven’t even started the project yet and you’re already over $200,000 over budget,” resident Ron Jacobs said.
Marie Leotta, a town resident, echoed the sentiment that the bank completely suits the needs of the town.
“I feel like the town is dug in on their new offices and is not going to look at the bank as a viable alternative. You are supposed to be doing the best thing for the townspeople. Look at the bank. It would take minimal work to move in tomorrow. I think it’s unfair that you’re all digging in on this,” Leotta said.
“I don’t think we’re dug in,” Hartshorn said.
Board member Sal Spinosa said that the town was committed to a specific project because of a vote by the residents. He said that looking at the bank would “cost a lot to study it.”
“While we’re going forward with the project, who is going to examine the bank and who will evaluate it?” Spinosa asked.
Board member Kari Dolan enumerated several things the town would need to look at vis-a-vis the bank and urged the board to discuss it at the next meeting on May 11.
Neil Johnson pointed out that the petition had 239 signatures and said that its creators wrote it specifically as it was worded to give the town latitude. He said it could have been written as a petition calling for a specific bond vote to buy the bank.
“The bank is an opportunity that many in town feel makes sense. You said you wanted more public participation – people participated by signing their names,” Johnson said.
Leyton added that had the bank been an option when voters cast their last ballots on the Farm Stand project the outcome would probably have been very different.
“Before we spend another free dollar of grant money, we should monetize the options. Let’s be sure; let’s find out,” Leyton said.
“I’m not sure there’d be any additional costs if the select board and four people who work in these offices will walk into the bank and check it out,” town resident Michael Sharkey said.