ST. ALBANS CITY — Voters will weigh in on a proposed $2.3 million renovation of St. Albans City Hall in November. The city council voted unanimously Monday night to put the issue before voters after a lengthy public hearing.
The hearing was held after those attending made their way down a side alleyway that is the handicapped access to the building. That problem and others came to the fore during the meeting.
The budget for the renovation has been reduced by $200,000 after an energy consultant recommended changes to the proposed insulation for the exterior walls.
With a 20-year bond at 3.75 percent interest, city staff estimates the annual debt service would be $160,000.
This is the last fiscal year in which the city will make payments of $35,914 on the library bond and $96,672 on a tax anticipation note. The city also is putting $50,000 annually into a window replacement program for the building, with 40 windows still remaining. By combining the funds currently being used to fund other debt with money already being spent on the building, the city could make debt payments of up to $182,500 without raising taxes, according to a memo from city manager Dominic Cloud.
In addition, energy modeling suggests the city would save between $6,000 and $8,000 annually in electricity and heating after the renovation. The city also would finish paying on the Little League field purchase this year, for a savings of $1,550.
If the project does not go forward – assuming no other changes in the current city budget – city taxpayers could see their tax rate decrease from .8557 to .8284, a savings of $54 a year on a house valued at $200,000.
If the renovation is approved and the rest of the budget remains the same, the tax rate would be .8468 and the taxes on a $200,000 would decrease by $18.
The anticipated cost of the project per $100,000 of assessed value would also be $18.
If the city were to opt for a 30-year bond, the cost would be even lower.
Attendees at last night’s meeting were directed down an alley along the north side of the building and through a door into the gymnasium. The alley entrance is the current handicapped entrance to the building. It is unlit and lined with bird feces.
To get to the second floor, the public must ride in a chair attached to the staircase. Rep. Kathleen Keenan took the chair last night to get to the second floor. However, the chair actually stops at the top of the staircase, leaving the person in it to exit while still over the stairs, and making it difficult for anyone to transfer into a wheelchair.
City resident Henry Demar chose not to take part in a tour of the second floor, because although he could get to the second floor, his electric wheelchair could not.
“It’s unacceptable,” Mayor Liz Gamache said of the accessibility of city hall.
Ward 5 representative Ryan Doyle said the issue is not simply accessibility, “It is inclusion.” Doyle said he often hears from residents with mobility issues.
Improving accessibility was the first charge of the committee created to look at the renovation along with architect Laz Scangas and contractor Jim Cameron, who is coordinating the project.
The second issue it was asked to address is the lack of vault space. “It’s physically maxed,” Cameron said of the vault. “You have to lose weight to go into it. You can eat when you get out of it.”
City clerk Sue Krupp said just a single shelf is the only space available for storing new land records. The narrow vault has room for only one person at a time.
Accessibility and vault space are driving the proposed changes to what Cameron is calling the ‘east wing’ of the building, that is everything but the gym.
The plan calls for an elevator to be built along the south side of the building. Because of the grade, the entrance to the elevator will be about four feet below the first floor, explained Scangas. It will stop on both the first and second floors.
The council chamber will move to what is now the clerk’s office. That space will be configured for 61 people, more than double the 28 the council chamber can currently hold. There will also be two public restrooms on the south side of the first floor and a small kitchen area for use during events.
The west side of the first floor will house the clerk’s office and the zoning office, with a new vault in between. The basement will have a second vault directly below it. Scangas explained at an earlier meeting that one of the easiest ways to provide the structural support needed by the vault is to put another vault under it.
The second floor will be reconfigured to create an elevator entrance that will open into a reception area. Offices will be relocated to the outer walls, giving them window space, and the second floor conference room will be moved to the center of floor behind the outside balcony.
The balcony for the gym will be turned into file storage space.
The changes to the office spaces flow from the addition of the elevator and the new vault, according to Cameron. “If you pull the trigger on the elevator, you know what else has to happen,” he said.
The total cost of the east wing changes is $1.5 million.
The gym would see several improvements as well, with the plywood covering the windows removed and the windows restored.
A new and improved ramp would be installed on the east side for accessibility and the west side in the rear would gain a small kitchen area for use during events. The basketball hoops would retract into the ceiling and the exposed heating pipes would be removed. Air conditioning would be added.
A storage area for the stage would be created in the basement, with a service elevator added to the northwest corner of the building, along with an emergency exit. Four restrooms are planned for the front on either side of the stage.
Acoustic panels, some to absorb sound and others to reflect it, would be installed to solve the difficulty of being heard in the gym at a cost of $90,000. While Scangas was standing in the gym describing the improvements last night, his voice was echoing making it difficult to hear.
The acoustical problems with the space have made it a problematic place in which to hold public meetings, according to planning commission chair Chris Dermody, who suggested the building should be renovated in order to improve the public’s ability to take part in meetings.
Another planning commission member, Dave Barber, spoke in favor of the project, calling the current state of city hall “embarrassing.”
“I think it will pass,” he said. “I think it will pass by a good margin.”
Barber, like many others, has voted to approve several city projects in the past several years. “I think people are so proud of the city right now,” he said. “I know I am.”
Barber was one of many who responded after Tayt Brooks questioned the need to go to a vote in November. “The process seems rushed,” he said.
“We’ve been through the scenario before where we as a community have not made needed infrastructure improvements,” said Gamache. In the end the repairs cost more because of the delay, she added.
“I don’t know how we can hold ourselves out to the private sector and say, ‘Come to St. Albans. It’s a great place to do business. Don’t mind the plywood windows,” said Cloud.
Ward 2 representative Jim Pelkey said, “We have a vault that’s inadequate now. It should have been replaced five or six years ago. It’s not something we can wait on.”
City resident Sue Prent also expressed concern about the timing, suggesting city voters might not be ready to take on another large project so soon. “Are the voters going to be ready to sign off on this by November?” she asked.
Ward 1 representative Tim Hawkins, frequently a voice of caution when it comes to spending, observed, “It seems lately we’ve had a lot of acceleration and no brake.” Nevertheless, he voted in favor of putting the project before voters.