Pinnacle playset OK’d despite Suursoo’s fiscal objections

By Karen Zuppinger

Expecting a pro forma go-ahead for an already-approved toddler playground project at the Pinnacle Recreation Area, Matt McCarthy and Julie Hance found themselves in a protracted tug of war with Select Board member Derek Suursoo at the June 19 Chester Select Board meeting.

The project, when first presented to the board, was to cost approximately $34,000. Hance, who is executive assistant to the town manager, applied for and received a 50 percent matching grant through the state’s Department of Buildings and General Services, reducing the town’s cost to $17,000. That $17,000 was approved by the voters in March as part of the “grants” portion of the 2013 town budget. (See Chester Annual Report pages 13 and 25.)

The Select Board also had asked Recreation Department head McCarthy to solicit private donations to reduce the town’s contribution, which he did. To date, town manager David Pisha reports that donations of about $5,000 are in hand with about $1,000 more expected.

After comparing playsets from several companies, McCarthy had settled on a proposal from M.E. O’Brien for about $28,000 excluding the playground surface, which was expected to cost more than $2,000.

Click to enlarge picture

Click to enlarge picture

When chairman John DeBenedetti called for a vote to approve the original $17,000 match and begin construction, board member Derek Suursoo objected saying that he had a problem with the original amount and that “the $17,500 (sic) wasn’t approved before.”

Hance replied that it was approved by the voters, but that didn’t sit well with Suursoo. “I hear you that it is in the book and the budget was approved and what not” Suursoo said. “I don’t have a good feeling about that.”

Suursoo suggested that the board approve construction with a price tag of $10,000, reflecting the $15,000 match minus the $5,000 in donations. Hance asked what would happen if the cost of the “wood chips” used for a soft surface ran over by $500?

“I don’t know,” Suursoo replied. “I don’t like it, that’s all I need to say. I understand that people don’t understand why I am doing this, but I get this way sometimes.”

Chester resident Claudio Veliz, pressed Suursoo to elaborate, stating that Suursoo’s objections seem to be not only for the playground but for any recreational or educational additions to the town, including Southern Vermont Astronomy Group proposed astronomical observatory. SoVerA eventually withdrew its proposal for what it believed was a lack of support from the board.

Later, board member Arne Jonynas questioned Suursoo’s objection to those projects he’s referred to as “unnecessary.” Jonynas said that if the Select Board is going to promote economic development in Chester, it needs to have amenities that makes a town attractive, including a library and a recreational facility. “I don’t see either of those things as being frivolous,” Jonynas added.

“I don’t like it, that’s all I need to say. I understand that people don’t understand why I am doing this, but I get this way sometimes.”

Derek Suursoo
Select Board member

Hance said that she did not understand what the issue was, since both she and McCarthy had acted in good faith and done everything the board asked of them.

“We’re leaving it open-ended,” Suursoo said, attempting to explain his discomfort with approving the amount discussed.“When you approve $17,000 to be expended, that’s the cap that we’re giving (town employees.) And we have their good word that they are not going to do that.”

“So you’re saying that you don’t trust your employees,” interjected former Select Board member Dick Jewett, who was in the audience.

DeBenedetti stepped in to “move things along” and a motion was made to fund the project up to $17,000 minus any donations. Suursoo moved to amend the motion to state a minimum of $5,000 in donations. When his amendment came to a vote, he — and no one else — voted for it. Finally, after 38 minutes, the original motion was passed on a 3 to 1 vote, and the Recreation Department was cleared to move ahead with construction. Select board member Tom Bock was absent.

In the days following the Select Board meeting, McCarthy firmed up the cost of the playground, which now totals $31,460. With the 50 percent grant, the town’s portion would be $15,730. The $5,000 in donations would leave a balance of $10,730, $730 more than the amount suggested by board member Suursoo.

 Library repairs, Mountain View flooding grants

Two other grants were then discussed. The first addresses the storm water issues effecting Mountain View road homeowners, while the second will help pay for necessary repairs and restoration of the Whiting Library building exterior.  Hance said that based on studies conducted by engineer Naomi Johnson, who also sits on the town Planning Commission, repairs to fix the drainage issues in the Mountain View development area would cost $385,000.

Hance stated that there were currently two grants available to assist in funding the project: the Hazard Mitigation Grant with a 75 percent match, which leaves the town owing $95,000; and a more restrictive Community Development Block Grant covering 100 percent of the cost.

Hance says that to receive the CDBG she’d have to show a direct correlation between Tropical Storm Irene and the ongoing flood issues associated with that section of town. Several homeowners in Mountain View have been experiencing flooding each time it rains, when the runoff from Route 103 South run into their community.

Suursoo says he’s concerned the board keeps making commitments to fund future projects without an overall sense of what the totals will be; and he’d like to see an accounting of all the commitments thus far. He added that the stand-alone figure of $95, 000 is manageable but when combined with all the outstanding totals the town’s overall financial commitments could realistically reach $500,000.

Suursoo asked Pisha if he could provide the board with a spreadsheet accounting of all the projects currently approved by the board. Pisha said he’s happy to comply with the caveat that the numbers are not set in stone because of price fluctuations.

DeBenedetti put a motion before the board giving Hance the go-ahead to apply for both grants. The motion failed due to a two-two tie; two in favor — Bill Lindsay and Jonynas — and two opposed — DeBenedetti and Suursoo.

DeBenedetti then put forth a second motion to approve only the CDBG, which passed by a unanimous vote.

A USDA grant would pay 35 percent of the $109,320 cost to repair and restore the Whiting Library, which would leave the town owing $38,262, not including the architect fee of $12,660. Again the board expressed concerns about the town taking on another financial responsibility and wanted to know if there was any way it could reduce its contribution.

Bruce Parks, chairman of the Whiting Library board of trustees, told the board that he initially came to the Select Board with a $20,000 project that would cover the most immediate repairs and the library board offered to put in $10,000 to get the ball rolling.

Hance had approached Parks with the suggestion of applying for a grant to help complete more of the work.

Parks called the Select Board’s suggestion that the library board come up with an additional $25,000 in “bad taste.”  “The library is a town building,”  Parks said. “It’s your responsibility to maintain it.” The trustees of the Whiting Library are elected by the voters to operate the library in the building owned by the Town of Chester.

The Select Board members, while agreeing with Parks’ assessment, still wanted to know if the library board would be willing to contribute more, and or fund-raise to help pay for the project. DeBenedetti suggested a capital campaign with “a thermometer” in front of the library. Parks said that the library board meets on July 8th and he’d be willing to bring it up at the meeting but had serious concerns about getting an approval. The Select Board agreed to wait and hear back from Parks, and will address the issue again at its meeting scheduled for July 17.

 Village Center designation, DRB alternates

The Select Board approved the final Village Center Designation map submitted by Hance. The new map includes areas omitted from the first presentation, including the former National Survey map building on School Street, Vermont Hardwoods, Newsbank and two of its commercial apartment buildings  next door. Hance said that the applications must be submitted to the Downtown Designation Board on the first Monday of each month. Final approvals take place on the fourth Monday of each month and are given the go-ahead on the spot if there are no issues.

Dick Jewett, trail master of the Chester Snowmobile Club, asked the board’s permission to fix a water run-off problem on a class four road that runs from Blue Hill Road to Deer Hill Road. Jewett stated the water runs down the middle of the road, forms an ice sheet and affects the snowmobile trails. He said he’s gotten permission from all of the residents in the area to address the problem. The board gave the club permission to move forward.

The board appointed Ken Barrett and Mark Curran to the Development Review Board as alternates for a one and two year term respectively.

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About the Author: Karen Zuppinger in a freelance writer and Chester resident. Her work has appeared in Vermont Magazine and Assisi's Online Journal of Arts and Letters. She is a winner of America's Best Short Fiction Award.

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