Town-Hall-in-winter

For 150 years Wheelock residents have gathered at Town Hall to discuss community issues and make community decisions. The town continues to face a critical decision about our future needs for town government facilities and the role of this building and site in that future.

Wheelock has been grappling with the question of what to do about the Town Hall and Clerk’s Office for more than 15 years. The Town Hall does not fully meet accessibility and code requirements for public buildings.

This 2021 video walkthrough explained the issues. 

Where Are We Now?

2020 – 2022: U.S. Department of Justice Settlement Agreement

The 2020 Settlement Agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) included a timeline for the Town to come into compliance with the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The agreement addressed the issues outlined in the list of accessibility violations presented to the selectboard in 2019. The timeline had several deadlines:

By 12/31/2021 the selectboard was required to develop a Town Hall Accessibility Proposal & share with DOJ. The selectboard appointed a Project Committee in Jan. 2021 and sought and was awarded a municipal planning grant providing architectural and community engagement services. Place Sense helped bring in community input with mailings, a survey and a public meeting. MAKE Architects prepared two concept options for accessibility, with an eye to the town’s future needs. The selectboard reported to the DOJ as required by 12/31/2021, and gave the choice of which concept option to the voters at Town Meeting 2022.

Because of the pandemic, Town Meeting 2022 was held by the Australian ballot method, that provides no opportunity for discussion, unlike the in-person, moderated town meetings Wheelock normally holds. The voters turned down both concept option proposals. Option 1, cost estimate $980,090, was defeated 86 NO to 56 YES with 13 blank votes. Option 2, cost estimate $1,515,400, was defeated 88 NO to 56 YES with 11 blank votes.

However the voters overwhelmingly supported 128 - 22 an article to raise and put $16,500 into a new reserve account to create construction documents to address the ADA requirements. The voters also supported 109 to 41 an article to raise and add $30,000 to the existing reserve fund of $46,030 to be used for major repair and rehabilitation work on the Wheelock Town Hall.

The selectboard reported to the DOJ on 3/29/2022 that the voters did not approve a Town Hall Accessibility Proposal, providing a summary of the listening session the selectboard held after town meeting to try to understand the wishes of the voters. If the voters had approved the proposal, the next steps in the Settlement Agreement would have been to create construction bid documents by 8/31/2022, propose a bond vote by 12/5/2022, and if approved, begin construction by 7/31/2023.

The DOJ reported back to the town on 4/4/2022 explaining we must meet program accessibility requirements in the interim prior to completing construction that appears will be delayed beyond the deadlines spelled out in the Settlement Agreement. The selectboard wrote back to the DOJ with a letter of 5/19/2022 attaching photos showing efforts to meet program accessibility.

The selectboard wrote back to the DOJ with a letter of May 19, 2022 attaching photos showing efforts to meet program accessibility.

PROGRAM ACCESSIBILITY

We rented an ADA compliant porta-potty with a maintenance service contract and installed it near the ramp on the east side of the building. It is available for use on an on-going basis whenever Town Hall is open to the public.

portapotty on location

We created a records access station for researchers inside the main hall near the ramp door. Some land records are digitized and accessible via the town’s website. A phone call can be made to the Clerk downstairs asking to bring up records that have not yet been digitized.   

records access workstation

Selectboard meetings are held in person and via Zoom in the meeting hall that is accessible via a ramp on the building's east side. Information on how to log in by computer and phone are part of every meeting agenda.

The DOJ representative reported back to the town on June 9, 2022 with good news: "I have decided to close our office’s file on your town hall. This means that our office is no longer expecting the Town to comply with the specific terms of the settlement agreement, though of course compliance with the actual law is still required." 

A New Architectural Plan

At the listening session on 3/27/2022 discussion boiled down to the need to meet ADA requirements, keep costs down, yet make a wise investment. The selectboard received a bid from a contractor to install a lift and build an ADA washroom. The proposal contained very little detail and no drawings. The selectboard felt a more fleshed out proposal designed by an architect was needed. The selectboard issued a bid request for architectural services, with no response. Beginning in May 2022 the selectboard then issued sole source requests to several architects, and after a couple of false starts, met with one who was available to work with us starting in November 2022. Late in October he let us know that one of his projects went into construction and he had to postpone our start date to spring 2023. He suggested four other architects who might be more available. After contacting all four and on-site visits with two, on 11/10/2022 the selectboard voted to engage Greg Paus, Silver Ridge Design of Hyde Park. See the meeting minutes for how the selectboard came to this decision and the proposal outline.

 

How Can Wheelock Pay for Large Projects?

With taxes. But why do that if we can find grant funding? Taxes can pay for other routine or urgent needs, like road work and road equipment.

With a bond. Individuals typically take out a loan for a new car or a mortgage for a home. Borrowing spreads out the project cost so it is affordable over many years. A bond requires a town vote. Wheelock taxpayers have become accustomed to a $30,000 bond payment for a prior obligation. The final payment was made in 2021. Years back, Wheelock did this for the Millers Run School addition.

With grant funding.  The amount and variety of grant funding available in 2022-23 is unprecedented. Funds are available for efficiency upgrades, planning for accessibility modifications, construction of accessibility modifications, USDA Rural Development funds for community facilities, and more. Grants are competitive, and they require submission of a proposal at a predetermined deadline. Funders need to see plans. They are giving us a gift and want to see that we know what we are doingFunders want to know that the town supports the project and is contributing financially. The funds must be used within the grant's time frame and for the work that is proposed in the grant application. If awarded, the funds don't have to be paid back. If not awarded, the only thing we have lost is time and effort. Grants have saved the Town money for previous Town Hall repairs required by public safety (over $120,000), as well as for road and bridge projects (over $186,000 in 2021). The Town Hall's historic designation does not prevent us from renovating the building, instead it makes the project eligible for additional grant money to meet today's needs. Those include our government functions - clerk's office and meeting space - but also so our town's only public building can continue to be used as the center for community life.

We are approved for support from the Rural Economic Development Initiative. REDI assists small towns, especially those without paid staff, to access funding resources just like larger towns with more capacity.

With our ARPA allocation ($246,912). Selectboards determine how the ARPA funds of their municipality are to be expended. Like many towns, the Wheelock selectboard appointed an ARPA committee to come up with ideas. The group met in March 2022. The selectboard decided to spend the majority of ARPA funds on the Town Hall ADA project because of its urgency. The ARPA committee then decided not to meet again until it is clear what, if any resources would be left for other projects.

Timeline and Document Archive

Want to dig in and learn more about what has happened with the Wheelock Town Hall? Here is a timeline of events with links to many of the plans, studies, reports and actions over the years.

  • 1871
    • Wheelock Town Hall built
  • 1972
    • Town Hall moved from original location on north end of the Town Common and set on a higher foundation, creating a full basement to house Clerk’s Office
  • 1993
    • Selectboard approved putting $8,000 into a special account to possibly be used at a later date to make the downstairs of the Town Hall accessible
  • ?
    • Ramp constructed (does not conform to ADA code requirements regarding slope, landings, railing height, hand grips, obstructions, parking area surface, signage)
  • 2004
    • Sterling Design Architects proposal: Small rear addition to Town Hall for an office, vault and bathroom with an estimated cost of $136,000
  • 2005
    • Town awarded a $250 RSF Grant from Preservation Trust of Vermont for assessment of the Town Hall (Brown). Assessment fails to note attic truss problems 
  • 2006
    • Sterling Design proposal: Single-story addition on side of the Town Hall for an office, bathroom, vault and lift with an estimated cost of $516,346  
  • 2007
    • Section 106 Review Report for proposed renovations and additions to the historic Town Hall (Colman)
    • Town votes down $516,436 for the Clerk’s Office addition (as designed by Sterling Design Architects in 2006)
    • Wheelock Common District (Wheelock Town Hall, Green and Cemetery) listed on the National Register of Historic Places
  • 2009
    • Selectboard considers a 74-acre site on Route 122 for new municipal facilities
  • 2010
    • Town votes to approve up to $150,000 to purchase land for new municipal facilities
  • 2012
    • Define Architects proposal: two-story addition to the Town Hall (no rehab) and a separate Highway Garage with an estimated cost of $800,000
    • Town buys back parcel of land next to the Town Hall that it had previously sold
  • 2014
    • EH Danson proposal: New Municipal Building (combined Clerk’s Office and Highway Garage) with an estimated cost of $1.6 mil
    • Town awarded a $250 RSF Grant from Preservation Trust of Vermont for condition assessment of the Town Hall (Newman). 
  • 2015
    • Condition Assessment of the Wheelock Town Hall (Newman) finds serious structural problems with the roof truss system
    • Town votes to authorize the Selectboard to look into financing options for up to $1.2 million for municipal facilities
    • Town votes at a special meeting to approve construction of a new garage and repairs to the Town Hall (no office addition or renovation)
    • Town votes against spending $300,000 to construct a new garage
    • Roof truss system report: (Lewandoski) provides recommendations for repairing structural problems with the roof truss system. The report was funded with a $250 grant from Preservation Trust of Vermont
  • 2016
    • Town awarded a state VCDP Planning Grant for the Wheelock Town Hall. Grant was awarded and half the work was completed, but a new selectboard ordered the remaining funds to be returned to the state
    • Town awarded a $5,000 Urgent Needs Grant for temporary stabilization of the Town Hall in response to structural problems with the roof truss system
    • Town votes to approve $30,000 for repairs to the Town Hall roof truss system
    • Town awarded grants to repair the roof truss system from Preservation Trust of Vermont, a statewide private-non-profit ($50,000), State of Vermont Division for Historic Preservation ($20,000) 

  • 2017
    • Black River Design proposal: two-story addition to the rear of the Town Hall, lift, interior rehab, kitchen with an estimated cost of $674,000
    • Structural (roof truss system) and electrical repairs completed at a total cost of $199,704 with about $120,000 of that amount offset by grants
  • 2018
    • Wheelock obtains a State Village Center Designation. The area includes the Town Hall and Common
    • Town did not vote on proposal to spend an additional $875,000 to rehab the Town Hall, construct the addition (Black River Design), meet accessibility and code requirements
    • Complaint about the Town Hall’s failure to meet accessibility requirements filed with the U.S. Department of Justice under the Americans with Disabilities Act
  • 2019
    • Town votes down Article 22 to borrow up to $800,000 to rehabilitate the Wheelock Town Hall ( Y=62 / N=102)
    • Representatives from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) visited the Wheelock Town Hall, met with the selectboard and presented a list of accessibility violations
    • Improvements completed to correct minor DOJ accessibility violations (accessible counter, exterior lighting, signs, notices, stairwell treads & railings)
  • 2020
    • January - Vermont Council on Rural Development Community Visit Program was invited by the selectboard to work with the town. VCRD facilitated two community meetings and created the Wheelock’s Future Report 
    • March to November - the Facilities Task Force explored options for Town Hall and town garage, culminating in a public information meeting outdoors on October 24, 2020. Read their minutes and see the community presentation outdoors on Oct. 24.
    • May - Selectboard sought legal counsel and signed Settlement Agreement with the DOJ. Failure to meet the terms of the agreement could lead to the DOJ initiating civil action against the town
    • October - 62 Wheelock residents respond to a survey about Town Hall as part of developing the Wheelock Hazard Mitigation Plan 
    • December - Town awarded $20,633 Municipal Planning Grant from VT Agency of Commerce and Community Development and two smaller grants for the Wheelock Town Hall Accessibility Project to engage technical assistance
  • 2021
    • January - Town awarded grant of $5,000 from NCIC to add to project budget. Project Committee established regular meeting time and followed state open meeting law and encouraged others to attend 
    • February - Project Committee recommended that the selectboard engage a consultant team procured in a competitive bid process to provide architectural and outreach services
    • Team reviewed prior plans and studies and were tasked to present recommendations for providing an accessible and affordable town government facility, an "Accessibility Proposal" to meet the DOJ obligations
    • Outreach set up a project web page, the contents of which were moved here to town's website March 2022
    • April - new more detailed survey mailed to 314 Wheelock households. 80 responses helped the consultants and Committee select two concept options for further investigation and community input. Impact on taxes was very important to respondents
    • September - KATV video explaining the Town Hall's ADA issues 
    • September 27 - MAKE Architects present their proposals at a Community Meeting (with mailed announcements), held outside in a tent with 20+ attendees. Vermont Council on Rural Development provided neutral facilitation. Two concept options were presented and discussion followed. Concept 1 is a 20 x 30' addition at rear. Concept 2 is a larger side addition to accommodate all building functions on one level (no elevator or lift). Watch a KATV videotape or read the Minutes
    • Town awarded support to develop a fundraising plan and grant proposal(s) from REDI (in-kind work; no funds are awarded in the arrangement)
    • December - REDI turned over the project to NCIC, a St. Johnsbury based community development resource that helps towns and businesses
    • December 30 - Selectboard reported to DOJ as required in the Settlement Agreement, indicating it was turning over the choice of concepts for the "Accessibility Proposal" to the voters at town meeting 
  • 2022
    • Februry - Project Committee sent a mailer to 314 households outlining the two concept designs and impact on taxes of borrowing scenarios
    • March - Due to pandemic, Town Meeting was held by Australian ballot, with public information hearing on Feb. 25, 2022 recorded on video by KATV. Here are Town Meeting results regarding Town Hall ADA. 2 concept designs both defeated
    • March - Selectboard held a Public Hearing March 22 required for a state planning grant application 
    • March 27 - Selectboard held a Listening Session with our Town Moderator
    • March 29 - Selectboard reported to the U.S. Department of Justice. According to the Settlement Agreement the selectboard is required to provide an Accessibility Proposal to move forward to meet the ADA requirements
    • April 4 - DOJ wrote back to Selectboard explaining we must meet program accessibility requirements in the interim prior to completing construction, that appears will be delayed beyond the deadlines spelled out in the Settlement Agreement
    • May to June - Correspondence between Selectboard and DOJ showing the town's efforts to meet "program accessibility" results in the DOJ closing the settlement agreement file. The letter from the DOJ of June 9, 2022 states "I have decided to close our office’s file on your town hall. This means that our office is no longer expecting the Town to comply with the specific terms of the settlement agreement, though of course compliance with the actual law is still required." 
    • May - November - Selectboard seeks an architect to help design Town Hall accessibility and public safety improvements.