ALBANS CITY — St. Albans City voters will be given a chance to weigh in on a proposed $2.5 million renovation to city hall.
Monday night the council voted to hold a public meeting on the proposed renovation, prior to moving forward with a November bond vote.
During its goal setting session at the beginning of the fiscal year, city council instructed staff to make city hall a priority with a focus on improving accessibility and meeting Americans with Disability Act (ADA) standards, increasing storage space for public records, and improving energy efficiency, explained Mayor Liz Gamache.
The proposed plans include elevator access to the building along the south side, two new vaults, and an upgrade of all of the mechanical systems. In addition, the council chambers would be relocated to the south side of the building and expanded, and improvements would be made to acoustics in the gym to make it more usable for performances and other events.
If the city were to borrow the funds for the renovation at 3.5 percent over 20 years, the annual payments would be $172,000, said Cloud.
The city is making final payments on the library bond of $36,000 per year and a tax anticipation note of $97,000. The city anticipates energy savings of $16,000 per year from the renovation. In addition, the city is setting aside $50,000 in general funds for a city hall window replacement program. Combining those funds would allow the city to make the bond payment for the renovation without raising taxes.
“This is a heckuva an opportunity to be able to do it within the funds the voters have given us to run the city,” said Cloud.
“This is a great project. I love it,” said Ward 1 council member Tim Hawkins. However, he also expressed doubt about the need to do the project now. He asked what impact paying off the tax anticipation note and the library bond would have on the tax rate.
The library bond and the loan to purchase the Little League fields were sold to the voters as temporary loans that would go away, argued Hawkins. The Little League loan also will be paid this year, but the annual savings will be just $1,550.
Now the city is proposing to say to taxpayers, “We’re going to load you up again,” argued Hawkins.
“What’s the alternative?” asked Cloud. “We’ve owned this building for 100 years and we’ve known for 20 years that we have to address these issues.” When the city is trying to encourage developers to renovate downtown buildings, it should do the same, Cloud argued.
Hawkins asked what are the advantages to doing so immediately.
Cloud replied that the city could make the improvements without raising the current tax rate, an opportunity that is not likely to come again. “We did the library 20 years ago,” he said. “Now we can do city hall.”
“I think it’s a legacy opportunity,” said Cloud.
Ward 2 representative Scott Corrigan objected to the phrasing used by Cloud in the past when he had referred to the retirement of current debt as creating capacity for new debt. “I take a little bit of offense at the term ‘available capacity,'” said Corrigan, adding the money being used to pay the current bonds is his, too. He also expressed doubt about moving forward with the project now.
“It’s not an option to do nothing,” said Gamache. “The handicapped accessibility needs to be improved.” Interest rates are still low, she noted, and an increase in rates of even half a percentage point could make the project less viable.
“I think we’ve waited too long on this building,” said Ward 2 council member Jim Pelkey. He pointed to conditions for handicapped access, which is currently down an alley with signs warning of falling ice and snow and which is also plagued by bird feces. There is no handicapped access to the second floor except for a small chair attached to the stairs.
“We have lighting that’s atrocious,” said Pelkey. “It needs to be brought up to code.”
Pelkey, too, noted that the city is asking other downtown building owners to make investments in their properties. “We have a building that is a focal point of the city,” he said.
“What I’m saying is – is now the appropriate time,” said Hawkins, noting that the city “has a lot going on.” He also noted the public would save money if the notes were retired, although it has not yet been determined what the savings would be for a typical taxpayer.
City resident Henry Demar noted an assessment was done of the needs at city hall about 15 years ago. “As far as I know it was thrown in the corner and left there,” he said.
“Take into a consideration those who may be in wheelchair. Those who may be blind,” said Demar. Nationwide, 20 percent of the population is handicapped, he said.
“I would really like to the see the city bring everything up to standards as soon as possible,” he said. In order to vote on Town Meeting Day, handicapped residents must dodge ice to go down that alleyway, he reminded the council.
Dave Kimel, a city resident and manager of the Collins Perley Sports & Fitness Center, said the issue should go before voters. “If voters want a one or two or three year savings… that’s their choice.”
The council voted to move forward with a public hearing. All voted in favor except Corrigan, who abstained.