BARRE — A shorthanded City Council narrowly agreed to press ahead with a long-planned pool upgrade amid concerns associated with an ongoing pandemic that has the city asking its employees if they’re interested in taking a voluntary furlough.
On a night when councilors again met by video conference and Rich Morey was unable to attend, Mayor Lucas Herring had to cast the decisive fourth vote to keep the pool project on what City Manager Steve Mackenzie described as a somewhat uncertain path forward.
Though Mackenzie said it is unclear when construction could actually start given restrictions on non-essential work now in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Mackenzie urged councilors to authorize him to execute a contract with the Massachusetts contractor that submitted the low bid for the work.
Mackenzie said “successful” post-bid negotiations with Construction Dynamics yielded roughly $59,000 in savings. He said those savings, coupled with previously discussed plans to tap $150,000 from the $280,000 surplus included in the $1.7 million infrastructure bond voters approved last month, should allow the city to proceed with the upgrade of the 70-year-old pool and the installation of a new beach entry.
Mackenzie told councilors it was “critically important” they authorize him to execute the project so that construction could begin as soon as the state allows.
However, Councilor Michael Boutin renewed his “pump the brakes” assessment of the pool project and reiterated his concern that investing in a recreational facility at a time when it is unclear what life “on the other side” of the COVID-19 crisis might look like would be unwise.
“I don’t know if this is something we should move forward with,” he said.
Councilor Jake Hemmerick said economic uncertainties were of concern to him and agreed it might be prudent to defer the planned investment.
Mackenzie said it was hard to believe some form of “pre-COVID normalcy” wouldn’t return before the pool is slated to reopen more than a year from now and argued the recreational resource was an important part of the “fabric of the community” that can’t be used again until it is refurbished.
“The pool will never open again as it sits there today,” he said, adding: “If we don’t seize this opportunity now I don’t know when we will have it again. I think now is the time to make the commitment to the future of the city.”
Herring echoed those sentiments, noting it was late in the game to start raising questions about the pools attendance given a project that was the subject of a successful $720,000 bond vote two years ago, has received roughly $225,000 in grant support, and an additional $250,000 that was included in the just-approved infrastructure bond.
Councilors Ericka Reil and Teddy Waszazak both spoke in favor proceeding.
“We need to give the children something to look forward to when we have better times,” Reil said.
Waszazak agreed, suggesting despite economic turmoil waiting wasn’t the answer.
“Delaying this is just going to make peoples’ lives harder and (the project) more expensive,” he said.
Reil and Waszazak joined Councilor John Steinman and ultimately Herring in the required four-vote majority needed to advance the project. Boutin and Hemmerick both opposed the motion.
In a related decision the council voted, 5-1, to accept Mobile Sandblast of Montpelier’s low-bid of $6,500 to sandblast the surface of the pool prior to Construction Dynamics starting its work. Boutin voted against that motion.
Meanwhile, Mackenzie told councilors employees have been offered the opportunity take a voluntary furlough starting Monday in a move that could put a dent in the $200,000 deficit the city is projecting as a result of the current crisis.
Under the program employees would be eligible for unemployment benefits, an additional $600 a week promised by the federal government through July 31, while maintaining their benefits package with the city. Employees who opt to accept the offer would be guaranteed their jobs back once the crisis has passed.
Mackenzie said employees have been given until noon on Friday to inform their departments heads if they are interested in the furlough option, which could conceivably run through the end of the fiscal year.
According to Mackenzie’s rough calculations, if 10 employees opt to be furloughed it would save the city roughly $60,000 in expenses at a time when officials are projecting a $400,000 reduction in revenues due to COVID-19. In recent weeks, officials have identified other savings and reduced a projected year-end deficit of about $500,000 to $200,000.
Mackenzie said the furlough program could reduce that number even more if employees are interested. Not all employees – most notably emergency personnel – are eligible, and no department could afford to furlough all of its employees.