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Norwich Board Signals on Tower

Norwich — The Selectboard made no firm decisions last night about how it will proceed with the controversial emergency communications tower, but it strongly indicated it was leaning toward backing out of a previous deal with VTel and instead elect to build the structure on its own.

Last week, residents passed an article at Town Meeting that authorized the town to borrow $275,000 to help finance construction of the tower. The vote, which passed 689-341, signaled to the Selectboard that residents were willing to underwrite the cost of the tower rather than accept VTel’s offer to build the tower in exchange for using it for its own commercial purpose.

The town has said it needs the tower to improve impaired radio communication for the police, fire and public works departments. The Selectboard voted 3-2 in August to allow VTel, a Springfield, Vt.-based telecommunications company, to build and own the tower while allowing Norwich to place it’s antennas on top of the structure. But residents have opposed the deal and urged the Selectboard to choose a town-owned option.

While the Selectboard did not vote on whether the tower would remain in VTel hands, several Selectboard members nonetheless gave the more than 25 attendees reason to believe that the town will take over the project.

“We heard the town’s vote loud and clear and we’re proceeding down the town owned path,” newly elected Selectboard Chairman Stephen Flanders said.

Board members were hesitant to take an official vote against the VTel agreement because they weren’t sure how it would affect the future relationship with the company. The Selectboard is hopeful that VTel might allow the town to purchase some of the engineering and design plans the company has already completed so the town won’t lose time doing the work again.

But several residents still urged the Selectboard to set the record straight with VTel that the tower would be owned and operated by the town.

“May I suggest you just go ahead and make a motion that says you will make it a town-owned tower,” said former Selectwoman Alison May. “Why not just put that on the record and get that totally out of the way so that everybody can move forward?”

Resident Norman Miller said he came to the meeting to have the assurance the Selectboard would choose a town-owned option.

But several members of the board, including Christopher Ashley and Linda Cook, who have historically voted against VTel, said they wouldn’t support that motion until they could fully vet the VTel contract.

Town Manager Neil Fulton told the Selectboard that it couldn’t reverse its August decision to sign a letter of intent with VTel because that letter has already been signed.

Instead, the Selectboard could vote not to sign the official contract with VTel, but Fulton said he didn’t know if there would be any legal ramifications to the town.

Before the meeting, Fulton provided the Selectboard with several options about how it could move forward.

The town has received a Homeland Security Grant and Assistance to Firefighters Grant, but the grants expire on July 31 and Aug. 26, respectively. In an effort not to lose the grants, Fulton suggested putting a temporary 30-foot tower on top of the public works building so that the radio antennas could be placed on the tower.

A shelter to hold the equipment would also be built. When the permanent tower is complete, the antennas and the shelter would be moved to their permanent location.

For financing a town-owned tower, Fulton suggested that the Selectboard hold another special Town Meeting to ask to borrow additional funds. The $275,000 bond that was approved last week was petitioned by residents and didn’t include full details for financing.

Fulton has said that depending on grants, he expects the tower to cost about $400,000. Fulton said the Selectboard could warn a special Town Meeting asking for the additional funds as early as April 28 and as late as May 8 in order to apply for the July 2013 Municipal Bond Bank sale.

But the Selectboard declined to make any decisions. Instead, it called an informal straw poll to authorize Fulton to bring back more specific information to the next meeting about a temporary, small tower on top of the public works garage. Fulton will also provide more information about financing the tower and possible wording to warn a special Town Meeting for an additional bond vote.

The Selectboard said Fulton could investigate using “fast track” process to construct the tower. In a typical project, the town would offer bids for engineers and request proposals from building companies, but with fast tracking, the town would hire an outside company to go through the process to save time. The town would still have a high level of oversight, Fulton said.

Selectman Keith Moran and Selectwoman Linda Cook both suggested that the town could tap money from reserve funds to help pay for the project, but Fulton argued that use of reserve fund money must be approved at Town Meeting and the town already has plans for how it will use those funds, such as for equipment purchases.

“Let’s focus on the target,” Fulton said. “The target is to build a 180-foot tower for police, fire and public works as quickly as possible and consistent with what Town Meeting said last week.”

The Selectboard also unanimously voted to allow Burlington Communications Service Center to purchase and install police and public works radio equipment on the tower. The process will cost $206,073, but $92,370 will be offset by grants.

At the end of the meeting, the Selectboard discussed the VTel contract behind closed doors, citing that “premature general public knowledge of the issues would clearly place the municipality at a substantial disadvantage.”

The Selectboard will meet again on March 27 to discuss the tower.

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com .