• Williamstown balloting: Reversal will take 199 votes
    By David Delcore
     | May 01,2013

    WILLIAMSTOWN — When it comes to a proposed public safety building that was narrowly approved on Town Meeting Day and funding for an after-school program that was narrowly rejected, there is only one thing left for Williamstown residents to do: Vote again.

    Town and school officials hosted a public hearing this week designed to clear up any lingering concerns about the two proposals — the last bit of procedural business in the run-up to Monday’s scheduled revotes.

    The public safety building with the $2.5 million price tag dominated discussion during the more than two-hour hearing that featured a lot of questions, a little intrigue and one mathematical reality.

    The questions ranged from the dimensions of the proposed building to the time frame for construction. The intrigue came in the form of a passing reference to an unsigned one-page flier found tacked to the posts of mailboxes around town. And the mathematical reality is one thing both items on next week’s ballot have in common.

    To undo voters’ 298-283 approval of financing for the proposed public safety building, it will take at least 199 votes — two-thirds of the number on the prevailing side on Town Meeting Day.

    The bar is identical for those hoping to reverse voters’ 298-274 rejection of a plan to use $40,000 in surplus money to pay for the local share of the Onward after-school program. With the same number of votes on the prevailing side, it will again take 199 votes to alter the earlier result.

    Turnout will be a key, and it is conceivable that a majority of voters could experience a change of heart when it comes to both requests but fall short of the number needed to change the results.

    That explanation came at the end of Monday’s hearing. It opened with the Select Board again making the case for the public safety building while trying to undercut some of the assertions in the mystery flier, which they briefly mentioned and which came in for criticism before the session ended.

    One claim in the flier — that the town-owned site on Meadow Street was never tested for contaminants despite a geotechnical evaluation that turned up two unidentified materials — was never rebutted.

    However, Selectman Rodney Graham sought to allay any concerns that the site, once home to a sawmill and a portion of the old Lacillade Lumber Co. operation, was contaminated.

    “There is no credible information whatsoever that there (are) any toxic substances in this area at all,” he said.

    Graham acknowledged two unidentified substances — one “whitish” and one “grayish” — were discovered less than 4 feet beneath the surface and that they had not been tested, nor had the site been evaluated for contaminants. However, he said, no fumes or vapors were detected when the borings were being conducted.

    Graham said town officials had no reason to believe the location was contaminated, citing the porous nature of the soil and the fact the groundwater flows to the nearby Stevens Branch — a tributary of the Winooski River that the state regularly tests in connection with the town’s downstream sewage treatment facility.

    That said, Graham explained the project budget includes money for additional testing if any suspicious materials are found during foundation work. He said if there is any contaminated material, a $200,000 contingency should more than cover the cost of disposal.

    The flier distributed around town did not say there were contaminants on the site but indicated there could be and suggested the testing should have been done in advance.

    Although the Select Board downplayed some of the questions and concerns in the flier, it did not question the accuracy of what one resident described as an “erroneous piece of illegally delivered information that was spread throughout the town.”

    “(It) has no basis in reality,” he said, holding up the flier. “I hope anyone who gets this realizes how ridiculous it is and doesn’t base any of their decisions on any of this information.”

    Some residents spoke in favor of a project that one former firefighter said was long overdue given space constraints at the converted Depot Street garage that has served as the fire station since 1962.

    “It’s time for a firehouse. It’s an investment in the community,” he said.

    Resident Becky Watson agreed, describing Williamstown’s emergency responders as “local heroes” and suggesting they deserve the state-of-the-art facility that town officials carefully planned over the past three years.

    Watson said she believes residents’ approval of the project should be affirmed during daylong voting set for Monday at the current fire station on Depot Street.

    “I hope people really come out and vote,” she said.

    Absentee voting is already underway, and polls will be open at the fire station Monday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

    Graham said the public safety building proposal is worthy of support.

    “We believe we’ve put an efficient building designed for what we need with some allowance for future growth,” Graham said. “We don’t think we’ve gone overboard on anything.”

    In a community with aging buildings and an aging and expanding population, Graham said the need for emergency services will increase and the current facilities have outlived their useful lives.

    “I think we’ve got the most favorable cost and the most favorable financing we’re probably ever going to get. … If we invest the money now it will cost us less in the future.”

    Proponents of Onward — the extracurricular program that will be on the ballot — sounded a similar theme. They argued the program is partly responsible for participants’ measurable improvement in statewide testing.

    The supervisory union-wide program, which has been funded for the past five years with a $200,000 grant from the state Department of Education, will require a greater local investment this year as schools are asked to pick up a larger share of the cost. The state has renewed the five-year grant but will be kicking in only $100,000. That, officials said, is why what has historically been a $3,000 appropriation in Williamstown was a $40,000 funding request this year.

    The School Board opted not to include the program in its annual operating budget for fear the sizable increase could result in the failure of the school spending request. However, members, school administrators and some residents said they believe the program is valuable and are hopeful enough voters support the renewed request.

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