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Home News and Features Residents React to Proposed $2M Elks Club Purchase
Residents React to Proposed $2M Elks Club Purchase
Montpelier’s Town Meeting ballot features requests of more than $27 million in four separate bond votes in addition to a budget that increases the city portion of property taxes by 6.8%. While most of the bond vote dollars are slated for infrastructure improvements, Article 14, a $2 million bond to purchase a 138-acre parcel of land has generated the most public comment. The public vote happens March 1, 2022. Funding from the four bonds comes from both the city’s “general fund,” which directly affects property tax rates, and the water and sewer fund, paid for in part through usage fees. Originally proposed at $1.5 million, the request increased by $500,000 after two public hearings in January, and a recommendation from City Manager William Fraser. Fraser said the property, a large tract of open land formerly owned by the Elks Club in the city’s eastern gateway, is currently being appraised. Fraser said he expects the purchase price to exceed $2.5 million. “The plan is to include a mix of housing, community center, rec fields/trails, and open space,” Fraser said in an email interview. “A more detailed planning process will take place once we know whether the city is purchasing the land.”Four city councilors — Dona Bate, Jay Ericson, Conor Casey, and Lauren Hierl — were asked the same email interview questions as Fraser and were copied on the email, but none of them responded. Asked about a public/private partnership that had been referenced at prior city council meetings, Fraser said “We are actively working with the HUB (a private nonprofit organization centered around building a four-season multi-sport recreational and social center in the Montpelier area) … Nothing is formal yet. Both of us are waiting to understand the status of property ownership.” Fraser also said that housing on the former Elks Club property “was always part of the thinking.” However, he added, “there is no formal plan yet” but “We have discussed a mix of housing to include affordable housing, market rate, etc. We envision a new neighborhood with a mix of people and options.” “Where else could new housing be built in Montpelier?” asks Maryalice Bisbee on Front Porch Forum, who envisioned not only housing, but a city-owned swimming pool at the site. Bisbee described herself as an 85-year-old woman who has never stepped inside the city Recreation Center on Barre Street because “it is not at all accessible for anyone with ambulatory disabilities that many older Montpelier residents have, including myself.” Bisbee suggested using federal funds now available “is the most sensible decision as COVID becomes endemic rather than pandemic.” In fact, the city has slated $425,000 of its $2.2 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for affordable housing, but Fraser said those funds are not specifically planned for the Elks Club project. (By contrast, Barre City has slated $1 million of its $2.5 million in ARPA funds for affordable housing.) Joe Castellano recently commented on Front Porch Forum, “we, the taxpayers, are being asked, based on just the proposal of possibly locating a new rec center and maybe affordable housing at the Elks Club site, to approve spending $2,000,000 without having any sort of plan in place. If the City of Montpelier were to go to a bank with this proposal, any reasonable banker would tell them to come back when they have a plan in place that they could review and consider.” Many other people have spoken out on Front Porch Forum against the Elks Club purchase, decrying the distance from town as unwalkable. “What about folks who don’t have mommy and daddy to load up the mini van to drop off the kids at the accessible site? This site is only accessible for folks that have means,” said Edward Haggett on Front Porch Forum. Another take comes from Carolyn Ridpath, who said she has been a member of both the Montpelier Homelessness Task Force and the Housing Task Force. “With the acquisition of the land, we will have the ability to develop housing to meet the multiple unmet needs in our community,” Ridpath wrote. “I doubt that we will get another opportunity to acquire a land purchase of this magnitude. I was a negative on adding recreation, but have changed to being a resounding positive because of the prospect of owning the land and controlling its use in the future.” Castellano pointed out that Montpelier voters tend to “overwhelmingly approve any and all financial proposals.” “Before we approve any of the financial proposals,” he wrote, “especially those that require bonding, I would like to know how much of our annual budget goes towards debt service for previously approved bonds. And I would like to know if we are paying down both principal and interest on those bonds or if we’re just paying interest alone (since it’s far less expensive).” If passed, taxpayers pay debt service on the bonds for 20 years. If all four bonds pass, the combined first-year interest payments total over $530,000, which is split between the general fund and the water and sewer fund (the budget for which gets decided in spring, 2022). Of that, Montpelier Finance Director Kelly Murphy said in an email “currently we have $125,934 booked in the general fund for the initial interest for associated projects (i.e. infrastructure and recreation purchase).” Murphy added that “At this point interest and principal payments are estimates based on current information for voters to consider, this will not be “officially” set until we get voter authorization, the bond is issued (and rates are locked in), and the project is underway. This is a long way of saying we have budgeted for what will likely come to pass in FY23. Depending on timing the rest of the debt will come online in FY24, and FY25.” Murphy also pointed out that the public can see debt as provided in the FY21 Audit, and can view projections and factors for FY23 general fund budget development online in the Montpelier budget book. To see the full wording of the bond votes, and a complete 2022 Town Meeting ballot, go to www.montpelier-vt.org/922/City-Voter-Guide.