ST. ALBANS TOWN – St. Albans Town will be looking to fund its share of a proposed community pool through the local options tax (LOT), the town’s selectboard revealed during a regular meeting Tuesday night.
An article warned Tuesday for the town’s Town Meeting Day ballot explicitly links the funding of the pool to the town’s LOT, a 1 percent sales tax used to raise funds for infrastructure.
The selectboard likewise approved in a split vote to sign onto a letter of intent agreeing to share ownership of the Hard’ack Recreation Area with its current owners St. Albans City and equally pay the $5.5 million price tag for the municipal pool, Congress Street sidewalk, and other Hard’ack improvements pending voter approval.
Tuesday’s meeting came in the wake of a contentious meeting with city officials over the pool held last Wednesday, where two members of the town’s selectboard – vice chair Bruce Cheeseman and selectperson Stan Dukas – walked out of the meeting after protesting the town’s preparatory work in anticipation of Town Meeting Day.
That event hung over at least the start of Tuesday’s meeting, which began with comments from selectboard chair Brendan Deso criticizing the events of Wednesday’s meeting around the municipal pool.
“We had a special meeting last week that was attended by the city’s mayor and two city councilors,” Deso said. “We had five selectboard members at the start of the meeting and not fifteen minutes later, we had three.”
“I think it was in the paper and they all know about it,” Cheeseman said.
“I don’t yield time to you,” Deso replied. “We have to remember that our actions have unintended consequences – somebody statewide could have picked that up and turned it into a town versus city article, and it could’ve sent a shockwave through Vermont reversing all the progress we made this year.
“In the future, I want us to be civil with one another and remember what we owe to the people who put us in these seats and make sure that we stay in them for the duration of our meetings and represent them with care.”
“In hindsight, my actions Wednesday – I had other options, and in the future I will use those options,” Dukas said Tuesday.
“It probably wasn’t the best thing to do, but due to certain circumstances and information that’s been used against me in the past and information that’s been distorted, I was not in the right state of mind to stay here so I thought it was best to leave,” Cheeseman said.
According to officials, the town agreed to anchor funding the town’s share of the municipal pool through the LOT during a budget meeting held Thursday following input from residents who attended Wednesday’s meeting on the pool.
“We discussed that at our budget meeting Thursday,” Deso said. “We talked about taking that capital improvement plan, removing the equipment from the fire department and public works department [and adding the pool].”
The town’s initial plan for using LOT funds would have committed the largely untapped infrastructure fund to new vehicles at the public works department and fire department, sidewalk planning and either the renovation or relocation of St. Albans’s town hall, creating room in the general fund for payments on the pool bond.
During last week’s meeting on the pool, residents suggested it might be more palatable for voters if the LOT fund was used for the pool.
According to Deso, those bond payments were estimated to be between $170,000 and $190,000 a year for somewhere between 20 and 25 years.
The only other item Deso suggested would be funded through LOT fund would be the town hall, where increasingly limited space, decades of wear and noncompliance with building codes have left town officials weighing either renovating or outright replacing the 120-year-old building.
According to members of the selectboard, the board’s intention was to commit $250,000 annually to funding either the replacement or renovation of their town hall.
The LOT proposal was met with a lukewarm response from more vocal members of the audience Tuesday night, many of whom said they were worried about what effects overextending the LOT would have if a hypothetical recession limited business activity in town.
Former selectperson Paul Larner said he felt extending the bond for a pool payment over 20 or 25 years would put taxpayers at risk should the LOT be affected by a hypothetical decline in business that would force the town to make up losses through other, tax-raised funds.
“What you’ve done, by doing anything other than paying with cash as fast as you can or paying in cash, is ultimately going to hinder this town,” Larner said. “This is a good idea – everything you guys have pulled together looks good... [but] the end result is you’ll put taxpayers over the barrel, because the money does run out.”
Deso countered by noting the town’s current plans for the LOT only commit a little over half of what the town earns annually through the LOT, as the proposed pool and town hall expenses only totaled $450,000 rather than the $850,000 that, according to Deso, the town gathered through the LOT last year.
“We are receiving revenues of up to $850,000, so I don’t think we’re being irresponsible in making commitments of a little over 50 percent,” Deso said. “We should be able to leverage our income streams to benefit ourselves.”
Former selectboard chair Bill Nihan also criticized the proposed application of LOT funds, suggesting the current uses were not what the town had pitched to voters when they approved the creation of the LOT several years ago.
“I’m not concerned about committing moneys – I’m pretty confident in the LOT – but I’m concerned about diverting funds away from the intention,” Nihan said. “We also said things like the capital budget, fire trucks and so on would go into the general fund... and were not part of the LOT.”
“I hear your point, Bill, and I counter the voters will always have the final say,” Deso said.
Under town statute, use of the LOT is contingent on voter approval.
Currently, the town has only ever leveraged its LOT once since the tax was initially approved, with funds from the LOT building out the bulk of the funding for the town’s new public works facility.
Some in the audience still felt there was not enough information on what shared ownership of the Hard’ack Recreation Area would mean and what financial obligations the town would have in its operation and maintenance.
Under the letter of intent approved later that night, the city committed to the maintenance and staffing of the pool facility, costs the city said it would cover through the fees set and charged by the city’s recreation department for using the pool.
Other details, such as the town’s role in already permitted projects featured in the city’s original agreement with the nonprofit operating Hard’ack, would need to be ironed out after a contract is signed between town and city officials following tentative approval of the community pool on Town Meeting Day, according to Deso.
Language within the letter of intent between the two municipalities commits both to a contractual agreement following Town Meeting Day, something Deso described as a safeguard should the town feel an agreement was unfair.
“That was added by our attorney and that was to protect us,” Deso said. “If we can’t reach an agreement that’s satisfactory to the town, even if we pass the bond, we may not do it.”
Members of the selectboard also noted, in contrast to the some of the more critical opinions expressed by the audience Tuesday, there appeared to be support from members of the public for the construction of a new pool at Hard’ack.
“So many people in the community have come up to me and said they’re thrilled this is happening,” selectperson Jessica Frost said. “They love the collaboration and they think it’s a great amenity for this town, and they’re not in the room unfortunately.”
The selectboard ultimately approved the letter of intent between the two municipalities, with selectpersons Frost and Al Voegele voting in favor and selectpersons Cheeseman and Dukas dissenting.
Deso broke the tie in favor of signing the agreement.
During Wednesday’s meeting last week, officials from St. Albans City and the Hard’ack board of trustees both said their respective organizations would likely support the agreement.
According to an analysis conducted for St. Albans City, the city’s current 40-year-old structure is well past its initial 25-year lifespan and, despite what the report determined to be “a tremendous effort” on the part of city staff, the city’s recreation staff wonders every year whether the pool will even be operable.
A previous estimate shared by city officials placed rehabilitation of the current pool near St. Albans City School to be $2 million, an investment that would only buy several more years of service from what is only a seasonally-available facility.
While a meeting has yet to be scheduled, officials assured the audience Tuesday there were still plans for the town and city to host a joint meeting outlining the proposed pool bond ahead of Town Meeting Day.