By Eric Francis
HARTFORD – Nearly 200 voters piled into the newly renovated Hartford High School gym on Saturday to hear presentations and ask questions during a four-hour pre-town meeting session which is now being called “Community Day” ahead of Tuesday’s day-long voting by paper ballot on the town and school budgets.
Community Day is Hartford’s attempt to restore some of the back-and-forth between citizens and town officials that used to characterize the traditional format of Vermont’s annual town meetings before so-called Australian balloting became nearly ubiquitous across the state.
Before breaking for a lunch put together by the Parent Teacher Organization, the morning session on Saturday revolved around discussions about the town and school budgets with particular emphasis this year on a series of increasingly controversial bonds that are up for approval. The afternoon provided a chance for candidates for both the town selectboard and the school board to make a brief pitch for themselves followed by a couple of hours spent taking questions from voters.
School board members found themselves offering repeated apologies throughout the day for missing the mark on the joint town-school recreation bond, which voters approved to the tune of $9 million at last year’s annual meeting only to discover this year that at least another $3 million will be required if all the projects it was supposed to cover, particularly the plans for a new running track and Astroturf football field on the Hartford High School property, are to be realized.
While much of the discussion revolved around what went wrong with the estimates for the joint recreation bond, both Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg and school Superintendent Tom DeBalsi took pains to emphasize that voters have gotten quite a bit of value from the $7.5 million out of last year’s bond which has already been spent.
“We do have a very beautiful new Middle School gym and cafeteria. It’s the first time we’ve been able to cook in that kitchen for 20 years. You’ve got a lot of bang for you buck,” DeBalsi told the meeting.
Rieseberg noted that the extensive renovations to the ice hockey rink at the high school, which is now known as the WABA arena, are now on schedule. “The utility lines are going in as we speak,” the town manager said, pointing out that “This project was estimated twice and still came in wrong. I really need to emphasize this is not an exact science and you really don’t know what the number is until the bids arrive.”
To the south of town, down at the Maxfield Property on Route 5 near the new Army National Guard facility, the other half of the recreation fields that are being built for joint town and school usage are 70 percent complete and on schedule to be finished in August. “We don’t foresee problems at this point,” Rieseberg said adding that when it comes to the WABA and Maxfield portions of the larger plan, “These two projects will not be affected by (Tueday’s) bond vote.”
Superintendent DeBalsi said it is not clear what the school board will do with the remaining unspent $1.5 million if voters do not approve the additional $3 million being requested on Tuesday but, if the new bond were to be shot down, he said it would be the end of the Astroturf 8-lane running track and football field projects.
“It’s my intention not to start something that we can’t finish,” DeBalsi said, adding that if the bond is defeated, “We will have to look at the money we have remaining and figure out what we can do.”
“The field house is about a million-and-a-half,” DeBalsi noted.
Voter Peggy Richardson of Wilder drew a large round of applause from those attending the meeting when she questioned the value of spending $12 million dollars on sports related projects, especially football, when recent medical studies have raised alarms about the number of previously undetected head injuries suffered by players at all ages and the schools are struggling to fund what were once considered routine academic costs.
“I really don’t like this idea that we have to compete for students using athletic facilities,” Richardson said, “This is not an Ivy League institution like the one down the road and across the river. In particular, with football, the writing is on the wall as to how bad that is, in the gladiatorial sense, for people’s health. There are other ways of being fit and healthy without organized sports,” Richardson concluded.
School board member Peter Merrill responded with what he admitted was “a very strange” but nonetheless impassioned defense of the football program that began with his admission that he’d never attended a high school football game, despite having grown up in Texas where they enjoy a status bordering on the religious.
“It’s part of our culture. It is part of what attracts people from other areas,” Merrill argued while conceding that on the other hand, “Providing an opportunity for the strongest largest gentlemen in town to run up and down a field for a few hours probably doesn’t do a lot for the (physical health) of the rest of us.”
Merrill pointed to discussions being held at the state level which seek to reduce more than a hundred existing school districts across Vermont down to just 15 due to rising costs and a continuing long-term drop in the state’s birth rate.
If consolidation does come, “I want them to consolidate around us,” Merrill said, arguing it is important now to ensure, “that we have the facilities in place to offer the most to the surrounding communities,” that would be looking for the most attractive place to send their tuition students. “It would be a real shame if all of the sudden Woodstock became the place everybody went and we started bussing all of our students over there,” Merrill opined before concluding, “That being said, yeah, education is the reason we are here.”
School board member Jeff Arnold, who will be leaving the board following next week’s election, disputed the all-or-nothing logic behind the proposed additional bond. “I think the track could be built without the artificial turf. We don’t need to spend $3 million more. We have done very well on natural grass. We’ve won state championships on those (existing) fields,” Arnold argued.
“Why are spending $197,000 a year for 20 years for artificial turf,” Arnold asked, arguing, “That’s money we are not going to have spend on educational things. This year we were asked for $30,000 worth of furniture and we were hemming and hawing about that. We don’t need to build a $1.5 million dollar weight room. We need to scale it back…just digging the hole for the artificial turf is going to cost $1.3 million.”
Although the fate of the athletic fields has taken up much of the spotlight in recent weeks in discussion around Hartford, that is not the only major bond on the agenda.
The bond for maintenance upgrades to the White River School on Pine Street behind the Coop grocery store is actually for more money – $3.6 million – that will be used to replace roofs and leaking boilers in the heating plant and upgrade stairwells and bathrooms.
“The heating system there is on a wing and prayer,” DeBalsi said, noting that repairmen were called to the school to handle a boiler problem just the previous day.
Finance Director Jim Vezina explained the effect on school taxes of the two bonds that are before voters this coming week. The $3 million “track and field bond” would add $197,000 to the budget which would amount to a $1,530,695 increase over the current fiscal year. Passage of that bond would add 1.4 cents on the state education tax bringing the whole tax to 1.4482 cents per $100 of assessment.
If the White River School bond at $3.6 million also passes it would add another $256,000 onto the budget bringing this year’s increases to $1,809,695 and the state tax up 1.8 cents
for total 1.4662 cents worth of cumulative state tax.
Still, Vezina said, “The interest rate is currently about 3% so it is still an opportune time if you have to borrow money to do it.”
The presentation for the smallest of the three bonds up for consideration was given by Selectman Chuck Wooster who began by thanking outgoing Selectboard members Sam Romano and Bethany Fleishman who are retiring this year.
The “TIFF district” bond is something that is new to Hartford in recent years but which has been used successfully around the country to spur infrastructure projects in struggling, mostly urban, areas. If everything goes right, it is designed to divert a share of tax revenue generated by new construction projects in certain defined areas back to the town in an effort to quickly pay back the costs of bonding for upfront improvements to infrastructure (roads, sewer, etc.) that the town needs to put in place to make the new development workable.
This year the selectboard is asking voters to approve a $900,000 bond for Prospect Street which is a dead end road running from the White River Junction end of the Bridge Street Bridge, which spans over the Connecticut River to West Lebanon, a couple of hundred yards north up the riverbank.
Home now to several industrial buildings, including the Sabil & Sons wrecker service, Prospect Street could see four or five new office buildings constructed under current plans, beginning with one that already has a developer and tenants, including the State of Vermont and the Veteran’s Administration lined up.
“Just the first building will pay the interest on the bond,” Wooster told the meeting, adding, “$5.4 million will be added to the grand list. If this works the construction would start this year and hopefully be completed by 2015.”
Noting that the main theme of the day was that voters had just been stung by unexpected cost overruns from large bonds, Wooster took pains to assure residents that “the town managers is working with the private developer to essentially guarantee any cost overruns are on their end…the developer’s problem and not the town’s…so we can cap this thing at $900,000.”
“This first piece is very important,” because any additional buildings would only arrive if it goes according to plan, hence, everyone involved is “very eager to see this go well,” Wooster said.
“When this TIFF project is over all of the money goes in the general fund. Ultimately that’s what we want. We want a Grand List that is big and thriving and can pay for the town’s costs,” Wooster said, before pausing and adding, “The fine print is that there is no guarantee. If new TIFF revenue is insufficient in any year, for whatever reason…the town shall remain liable. The voters remain on the hook for this if things should not go well. I do want to emphasize this is not a bond taken from the town general fund. It is a specific type of bond it does not increase taxes.”
Despite that warning, Wooster concluded, “We believe we have project that is going to be cash-positive throughout the life of the project.”