ST. ALBANS TOWN — In the run up to next Tuesday’s special election, St. Albans Town Selectboard held the first of two public hearings Monday night.
Town residents had questions about ballot items and their financing, and a former selectman also suggested that a massive infrastructure project hadn’t been discussed enough publicly.
Before all that, town manager Carrie Johnson led the conversation and explained the three articles on the ballot:
- relocating and building a new Department of Public Works (DPW) with $2,482,000 borrowed in local option taxes over 15 years, or $213,000 annually;
- a $268,000 salt shed to be paid for with previously collected funds;
- and a petition to rescind the junk ordinance voted for in March and approved by the selectboard in August
Regarding the DPW project, proposed for town property on Brigham Road, Johnson said, “This will have no effect on the municipal tax rate.” Funds will be drawn from the local option tax (LOT), that has brought in more than $600,000 total for the last four quarters.
Selectman Sam Smith, however, said the DPW project was not a correct use for LOT funds.
“The onus on that sales tax is that it would be put into infrastructure that would increase the tax base,” said Smith. Roads, water and sewer lines, said Smith, “that would bring in new opportunities that would bring in a new industrial park, would bring in a new commercial park, or something.”
Smith, who is also a local developer, has brought up this point during several meetings in the past.
The LOT article, which voters passed in March 2014, however, mentions no such stipulation about infrastructure generating income. It asked whether voters would approve a restriction. That being: “Any and all sales tax, rooms, meals and alcoholic beverage tax revenues collected by the Town shall be deposited in a reserve fund established by the Selectboard for use on existing and future Town infrastructure projects?”
Johnson said, “We are using funds for at least what the voters approved to be used for infrastructure. You can’t get much more basic infrastructure than a Department of Public Works.”
Others were concerned about the DPW’s proposed financing time – 15 years. At an interest rate of 3.4 percent, that would add up to about $690,000 in interest total.
Local resident Ron Anderson wondered if the financing period could be reduced to five years, since the LOT is bringing in quite a bit of cash. He also suggested waiting a couple of years in order to collect a bigger chunk of money.
Johnson said that in general, because the town has no control over LOT income, it is risky to use a large percentage of it. Selectman Bruce Cheeseman agreed: “We don’t want to exhaust it.”
Cheeseman, who is on the DPW project steering committee with Johnson, DPW director Steve Beauregard and members of the public, also said that if the Town were to wait to collect money over several years, the cost of construction would surely rise.
Former selectman Mitch Montagne asked why funding of the salt shed was being sought separately on the special election ballot. Cheeseman admitted that $268,000 in a separate item made the overall project cost more palatable for voters.
Johnson also pointed out that the town wanted to be transparent in use of some previously collected funds – impact fees, DPW, LOT, capital project, highway salvage and capital equipment funds.
Montagne asked, “What if one [article] passes and one doesn’t?”
“We’ll have to cross that road,” said Johnson. She added there wasn’t much use in having a salt shed on Brigham Road if the DPW wasn’t going to go there, too.
Johnson earlier explained that the DPW project was a priority. “The town has been working on this for almost 10 years, more actively in for the past year and a half,” she said. “We haven’t built any real bricks and mortar in this town for some time, and we’re growing.”
Johnson added that the 2013 St. Albans Town Municipal Facilities Analysis completed by Scott + Partners Architecture of Essex Junction put the DPW near the top of the list for improvement.
“It’s adequate, but it’s not meeting all of our needs,” said Johnson of the current DPW garage. Lack of space for the growing department and the environmental hazards of having a salt shed and other hazardous materials right on St. Albans Bay are the biggest concerns.
Johnson added, “We should really look at what our long term plan is for this municipality.
The DPW relocation project has been discussed in earnest since last fall and has been the main topic at a number of selectboard meetings. Selectboard member David McWilliams, however, had heard a comment stating that was not the case.
“It has been brought to my attention,” McWilliams said last night, “that we’ve [supposedly] had backdoor conversations and private discussions.”
Cheeseman responded, “Whoever made that comment doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
Mitch Montagne later got up to make his comments on the project and said, “Dave, I know you’re talking about me. All I said was, ‘I don’t think that there’s enough.’ I’d like to see your working papers. Maybe I missed a few meetings.”
Montagne has not been in attendance at one selectboard meeting for the past year.
He added, “I was hoping that one percent [tax] was going to be for a lot of the old people, the poor people.”
Montagne continued, “I think you guys are pushing too hard. I think it’s too much, too fast.”
Resident Christopher Ward, told the selectboard he and his wife had just moved into a home near the Brigham Road property. He asked what the traffic might be like at the new DPW location.
Johnson and Beauregard said it was going to be mainly commercial traffic, and then in the winter, plowing between 4 a.m. and 10 p.m. on snowy days.
“It’ll be the best maintained road [in town],” said Montagne.
Ward smiled and said, “That’s the main selling point to my wife.”
The article petitioning for the junk ordinance – drawn up over 10 drafts since approval on Town Meeting Day in March and approved by the selectboard in August – was briefly discussed.
Johnson noted that if voters vote “yes,” it means they want to rescind the junk ordinance. A petition was submitted to the town in late September by local resident Peter Blouin, who was concerned about enforcement and his right to recycle material and make money from it.
“By the time I was done I had over 350 (signatures),” he said.
Smith specified why he alone of the five selectboard members didn’t approve the final draft in August after approving each piece of the ordinance in all the meetings prior.
“I participated, obviously – it was a group effort,” he said. “[But] I had problems with the language.”
In general, audience members and the selectboard members last night agreed that the issue should be determined by the voters, which is how the junk ordinance has been approved or not thus far.
“Nov. 10th is going to tell us,” said Cheeseman.
Regardless of the outcome next week, Smith said he thought the selectboard should continue honing the junk control provisions. “I think this board should revisit this ordinance,” he said.
A second public hearing on these topics will be held next Monday, Nov. 9, at 6:30 p.m. during the regular selectboard meeting.