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Bond Measure Revote Stirring Debate in Waterbury

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by C.B. Hall
Voters in Waterbury are being asked to rescind a town meeting vote authorizing issuance of $2.95 million in bonds to expand the 1890 Dr. Henry Janes House, a local architectural landmark that now houses the town’s library, into a municipal complex encompassing an enlarged library, town offices and the Waterbury Historical Society. The rescission could succeed with a smaller voter turnout than at town meeting, making every ballot count and raising the decibel level in the pre-vote debate.
The bond measure passed at town meeting on a 809–617 tally. For the rescission to pass, however, its backers need to win the revote with as few as 540 “yeas,” two-thirds of the 809 approving the bond measure at town meeting. The rescission could thus succeed on a 540–539 vote.
The relative ease with which rescission backers could win is also accountable to the state law, which mandates a rescission vote when only 5 percent of a town’s registered voters sign a petition demanding one. Waterbury has witnessed three rescission votes—two of them successful—since 2005, prompting the Waterbury Record to headline an article on the bond-vote redux: “Here we go again.”
Voting will end on May 13. Advanced voting is already in progress. The local discourse has remained essentially civil, but the undercurrent of anger is easy to detect.
“What’s sad is, we’ve got to go through this whole exercise,” says resident John Malter. He terms as “excuses” the rescission backers’ concerns about toxic wastes at the project site as premises for cancelling the bond authorization. “It’s absolutely a money issue,” he concludes.
Town consultant Barbara Farr, among those spearheading defense of the bond issue, says, “What [the rescission campaign] is doing is delaying the project and making the price go up.”  She adds that the borrowing costs, for example, are apt to increase.
Rescission advocates cite the presence of coal ash, lead paint, radon and asbestos at the site—Farr notes, typical findings for an old Vermont house—as a likely source of cost overruns, making the issue one of money, as Malter says.
Rescission supporter and former Waterbury Village trustee Everett Coffey calls for frugality. “The need for a project of this size is not here,” he says, although he also cites unresolved environmental issues, such as the non-completion to date of soil borings that could determine the feasibility of the construction. He termed the complex, as currently envisioned, “a Taj Mahal, Cadillac model.”
The project has its origins in tropical storm Irene, which left the old municipal building unusable. In a June 2013 vote, citizens rejected a $5 million bond proposal that would have funded, in another location, a replacement larger than the one now under consideration.
Chief among the rescission opponents is the town itself, which is taking out three half-page ads in the weekly Record to urge a no vote. In an interview for this article, Farrtermed the ads “fact sheets.” Given that this is already the municipal complex project’s second incarnation, the town’s statement, in an April 24 Record ad, that rescission would mean “the municipal building complex project is terminated,” raised the question, however: what’s a fact and what’s a tactic designed to get project supporters to the polls?
Responding, Farr hastened to clarify that the rescission would only mean that “we’re back to the drawing board” in advancing the project.
“It’s misinforming,” Coffey responded to the ad. “If [the bond measure] were rescinded, that particular design would not go forward, but there are a lot better alternatives for more efficiency and less cost.”
“It’s gotten to be a very bitter contest,” he concluded. “There are a lot of scare tactics being used.”