Michael Frett – For the Town of St. Albans
St. Albans Town voters will be asked a question years in the making as they mark their ballots for this coming Town Meeting Day: Whether to finally sign off on building a new town hall in St. Albans Bay.
The town’s selectboard approved an article this month asking to borrow up to $2.5 million and allocate another $2 million from previously collected funds and projected revenue from the town’s local options tax to support the $4.5 million construction of a single-story town hall on Georgia Shore Road.
Town officials have pitched the project as a necessity, given increasingly tight vault space and the lack of room for expansion in their current town hall, a 120-year-old building that has served as the town’s seat of government since the end of the 1800s and once doubled as a local schoolhouse.
Officials have also stressed accessibility issues with the current hall, stemming the fact most town officials’ offices, save for a public meeting space and the town clerk and treasurer’s offices, are located on the building’s second floor and are accessible only by a flight of stairs.
Blended into those concerns were quality of life issues ranging from an almost complete lack of private meeting space – save for the public meeting space doubling as the town hall’s handicap-accessible entrance – and issues with electricity and efficiently heating the century-old building.
The lack of vault space in particular poses a challenge to the town, as Vermont statute requires municipalities to keep physical copies of land records dating back to their founding. St. Albans’s current vault is close to full, with room for only another year and a half of records, according to the town’s clerk.
“We are definitely outgrowing this building,” town clerk Anna Bourdon said. “We’re out of room.”
A new town hall, according to officials, would a long-term answer to those problems, a statement officials attribute to previous studies, including a recent engineering report by Ascent Consulting, that suggested a retrofit to the current town hall would only buy the building another decade of use.
With the proposed new town hall, officials said they would be able to accommodate both the staffing demands and necessary space to meet both anticipated population growth in St. Albans Town and ongoing development within the town.
“We’re looking for a long-term solution without having to go back to voters in ten years,” town manager Carrie Johnson said in a recent interview.
For town voters, the question of building a new town hall is not new.
Voters have signed off on several articles setting the stage for the final proposal meeting voters this March, most recently authorizing a land purchase on Georgia Shore Road and engineering work needed to set up the final proposal voters will see on their incoming ballots this year.
“This didn’t come out of nowhere,” St. Albans Town’s selectboard chair, Brendan Deso, said in an interview. “If this was the project that would serve us for 50 or 100 years, we wanted to make sure it was the project we wanted.”
The town’s local options tax fund officials intend to use to pay for the new town hall and later service future debt on the project’s loan appears to remain strong. Revenue grew in 2020 despite the effects of an ongoing pandemic and officials project revenue from the tax to stay healthy through 2021.
Once vacated, the future of the town’s current office building is an open question. Officials have said they would support developers looking to restore the building, which sits on the National Register of Historic Places, for other uses, and developers have approached the town in the past about town hall.
“There should be a life for this building afterward,” Deso said. “My grandfather went to school here. My emotional attachment to this building is huge… but it doesn’t make sense to keep this building as the center of operations.”
With the town selectboard’s approval of mail-in voting, St. Albans Town residents can expect to see ballots arrive in early February, according to a recent statement from the town.