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Hartford Has Plan for More Borrowing

Officials Might Ask Voters For $7M to Finish Projects

Hartford — Voters who last year approved almost $14 million in bonds for recreational projects and renovations to Hartford’s Municipal Building could face even more borrowing requests at Town Meeting in March.

Town and school officials are contemplating bonding nearly $3.6 million to cover a shortfall in the amount of money needed to complete renovations to the Wendell A. Barwood Arena and a turf field and track at Hartford High School. On top of that, the school district may also seek a $3 million bond for the aging White River School.

And Hartford may also have to bond another $900,000 to help with infrastructure improvements for an office development on Prospect Street, though tax revenue from the project is expected to pay that off. All told, though, new bonding requests could total more than $7 million.

The projected new borrowing was discussed Monday night at an informational session for Hartford residents as part of the Town Meeting process.

Selectman F.X. Flinn said the additional $3.6 million recreational facilities bond is necessary if the town, school and its residents want to complete the minimum objectives of the projects approved by voters last March.

Flinn noted that the original $9 million bond approved in March for recreational upgrades — which include building out the Maxfield sporting complex and the track and turf field, and renovating the Hartford Memorial Middle School gym and cafeteria, the arena, and field house along with associated upgrades — has turned into a $12.5 million project as bids from contractors have come in higher than anticipated.

“The best approach is to go out for a joint supplemental bond,” Flinn said. “We did it together the first time around, let’s do it again.”

Hartford Superintendent Tom DeBalsi said in an interview Tuesday that the School Board voted on Dec. 17 to pursue a $3 million bond, without the town, to cover the shortfall in funds for a new track and turf field, which rang in at well over its $800,000 bonded amount. He said the School Board could tailor its bond decision to instead pair up with the town, or if residents express opposition, the board could alter the bond amount. That decision would be made at a future School Board meeting, he said.

Town officials have yet to decide how to cover the $532,620 shortfall to renovate existing locker rooms in the Barwood arena, build an addition with four new locker rooms and other necessary upgrades.

Options other than bonding include scaling back the project, using reserve funds out of the town’s budget, or dropping the project altogether, Flinn said. The Barwood ice rink is currently used by Hartford hockey teams and also has skating times open to the public.

“I firmly believe that this project should be paid for by a bond,” Selectboard Chairman Chuck Wooster said on Tuesday.

With warnings due to be finalized several weeks before Town Meeting, school and town officials have to finalize plans in the coming weeks.

Bids for all of the projects, except for construction of the Maxfield athletic complex off Route 5, came in over budget. Flinn, in a presentation Monday night, attributed the shortfall, in part, to the steps taken before the projects went out to bid.

He said Maxfield was the only project with detailed plans “already designed and bid out” prior to the bond vote.

“There was no design or engineering work in support of middle school, track and turf, or Fieldhouse studies,” Flinn’s presentation stated. He also made the point that final designs for Barwood differed from the “sketch design” from which an original estimate was made in 2010.

More than 50 residents and town and school officials attended Monday’s meeting and offered ideas on how to move forward with completing the recreational facilities projects.

Hartford resident and parent Gabrielle Lucke encouraged board members to proceed with a supplemental bond.

“We are going to give a loud and clear message as to what is important to us and where we are going,” she said .

Mike Scelza, a local bus driver, offered a slightly different opinion, but still suggested going forward with the recreation projects. No one spoke in favor of stopping the projects altogether.

“The town needs to look at it and make the cuts where they can be made and let’s go forward,” Scelza said, suggesting cutting the proposed eight lane track down to six lanes. “If we end up not having these programs, this town is going to lose greatly.”

School Board member Peter Merrill, who also sits on the town’s Planning Commission, put it more bluntly.

“If we don’t vote in favor of this, the town is going to dry up,” Merrill said. “That’s the choice we have to make. We have to decide whether we want to take a chance and vote for a future or we can decide to slowly, slowly, slowly sink away. I think I know what choice I want to make.”

Along with requests for money to complete the recreational projects, voters at Town Meeting on March 4 could see a sizable proposal for the White River School.

DeBalsi said the School Board last month voted to put up another $3 million bond to largely cover a new heating system for the White River School, which is more than 100 years old.

“We really think it needs to be done. It’s the next step to take care of the assets here in the district,” DeBalsi said Monday night.

Replacement of the gym roof, flooring improvements, as well as replacing plumbing fixtures and piping would be completed under the bond as well.

Another measure that could go before voters this year is a $900,000 tax increment financing bond to help cover infrastructure and roadway improvements for future development on Prospect Street. The Hartford Selectboard was expected to vote Tuesday night to move forward with administrative work associated with the TIF bond. Wooster said resident input will still be taken and that the board could reverse its decision to move forward.

Wooster said Monday night the TIF bond will not impact the tax rate like the other possible bonds would, as taxpayers don’t have to fund the TIF improvements. The TIF district is a financing method that takes the increase in taxes generated by the property’s development and applies the revenue toward payments for the bond that would be issued to help cover the infrastructure work.

“There is limited risk associated,” Wooster added. “Should the private development go belly up, the town’s taxpayers will be on the hook.”

Williston, Vt., based-DEW Properties has already received Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Adjustment approvals to build out the first phase of what will eventually be a multi-building office and retail complex on Prospect Street near the Connecticut River. If the building opens as planned in May 2015, it would house branches of the Department of Motor Vehicles and Agency of Human Services.

Along with the bond projects, taxpayers on the school side of the ledger may be asked to approve a $34.6 million budget .

DeBalsi said it represents a 3.9 percent increase in the school tax rate.

The projected tax rate increase on the school side is 5 cents per $100 of assessed property value, representing a $125 increase on a $250,000 home.

DeBalsi said compared to other Vermont school districts, Hartford is in good shape.

“It is definitely a low increase. A lot of districts are seeing an 8 or 9 percent increase,” DeBalsi said. “We are fortunate.”

DeBalsi said a majority of the budget increase accounts for a rise in general operating expenses, such as heating oil and diesel fuel for buses, as well as a 4.5 percent increase in health insurance and salaries for two additional teachers.

“We hired a math teacher at the middle school and another math teacher at the high school,” he said. “(We have) 140 teachers roughly and it’s nice to be able to add some and keep the budget at a 3.9 percent increase. I think we did really well.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.