MONTPELIER — The future of a proposed public parking garage in the Capital City may be in jeopardy because of an administrative error.
An attorney for residents who have appealed permits for the project said that efforts by the city to remedy the error would fail because their actions would not meet the letter of the law under state statute.
It is the latest salvo challenging permits for the project by the appellants, Friends of Montpelier, a group of 16 residents, represented by Bristol-based attorney James Dumont.
Dumont said voters were not fully informed about all the “related costs” of the garage when they were asked to approve a $10.5 million bond for the project in the November elections.
The bond vote simply stated the city was seeking approval to spend $9.2 million for a public parking garage, and $1.3 million on infrastructure improvements, such as sidewalks, sewer and water services, streetscapes and lighting; and contaminated soil remediation.
The ballot did not include a breakdown of “related costs” in the bond which included $600,000 for architectural design and engineering, and $50,000 for financial consultants – a total of $650,000.
It was an oversight the City Council tried to remedy with a “validation resolution” it wanted to approve at its meeting on Wednesday.
The council hoped to pass the resolution which it would then file with The Vermont Economic Progress Council (VEPC) — the state agency which approved the city’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district last year to spur economic growth, funded by state property education taxes. VEPC approved the garage project and the bond vote to fund it that would be repaid through TIF, rather than taxpayers having to foot the bill.
But Dumont said the council could not rectify failing to notify voters of the related costs of the project after the bond passed.
“Not only has the City Council altered the purpose of the original $9.2 million and the $1.3 million purposes outlined in Article 1 (of the ballot) but also the voters never authorized either the amount or purpose of the $650,000 estimate,” Dumont said in a written submission to the City Council. “Thus, the validation resolution is invalid because it misrepresents the purpose of the bonds on which the public voted.
“In conclusion, the City Council may not legally pass this resolution to cure the vote for a defect in (the) notice. Nor may it expend funds or issue bonds to implement ‘Exhibit A’ (the related costs),” he added.
Speaking at the council meeting, City Manager Bill Fraser said, “The design cost, architects, engineers, are all typically considered part of construction costs.
“My opinion is that the voters understood that … I appreciate your point of view and I assume we will do due diligence and look at that. There was no intent to do this any differently or present any number other than the actual total (of the project),” he said.
Dumont responded: “What my memo points out is that the validation statute does not allow you to clean up shortages in a notice of this kind.”
“The issue of the validation is not about the approval of the bond,” Fraser replied. “The issue has to do with VEPC and the use of TIF and it was actually VEPC that wanted us to do it this way and asked us to look at that. We agreed with them that we would use the validation resolution to address that. They were not concerned with the validity of the bond itself.”
The issue over the validation resolution follows appeals that claim the city failed to follow its own zoning regulations when permitting an 81-Hampton Inn & Suites hotel and garage project on 2.8 acres of land owned by the Bashara family behind the Capitol Plaza Hotel off State Street. An Act 250 permit for the project was also appealed.
After going into executive session to consider the issue, the council emerged to say it would table a vote on the validation resolution until it had time to consult with city attorneys.
The $10.5 million cost to build the garage does not include $36,131 in legal costs to fight appeals of the project, with some bills for legal costs still outstanding. Delays in the project are also expected to add approximately $270,000.
In other business, the council discussed concerns about the cost of police and city management of a political campaign rally by 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders in Montpelier on Saturday. Councilors said they were considering sending the senator a tally of the costs incurred and will consider crafting a policy at a later date that would allow the city to bill applicants who stage events in the city that cause the city to incur costs for law enforcement and other services.