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Norwich Voters Will Decide Whether To Replace Outmoded Police And Fire Stations

Charlotte Albright
Ben Trussell, buildings and grounds worker for the town of Norwich, removes snow from the roof of the police department. The building would be replaced, along with the fire station, if voters approve a bond issue at town meeting.

In the upscale town of Norwich, the police department occupies a dilapidated 1950's ranch house. On a recent winter morning, a building and grounds staffer for the town is removing snow and ice from the roof, which is already leaking.

At Town Meeting next Tuesday, voters will decide whether to borrow around $3 million to replace aging facilities for police and fire departments and renovate the public works office. 

The issue is dividing candidates for the select board.

With the vote looming, Police Chief Doug Robinson points out to visitors the deficiencies of the department’s cramped quarters. His office is okay, he says, but he walks down a narrow hallway showing how his staff have set up their makeshift offices in the much smaller bedrooms in this former house, which was never intended as permanent housing for the department. Chief Doug Robinson says he hopes voters will finance the workplace he thinks his officers and firefighters badly need.

“And that’s the thing,” he says, “I mean, it’s a very affluent community, and this is what they put their police department in. But if you can walk outside, this is the ... siding, you see down there where it’s all rotting. If  you look up there you see where the water is starting to come through in the eaves.”

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
Norwich Police Chief Doug Robinson shows the department kitchen, which doubles as a meeting room and evidence display area.

Criminal evidence gets laid out on the same kitchen table where the officers eat lunch. And when the evidence storage closet is full, the overflow is locked in the chief’s office. There is wide agreement in Norwich that the police station, as well as an undersized firehouse that doesn’t have showers, should be upgraded. But not everyone is on board with the bond issue on the town meeting ballot this year.

At a recent forum for select board candidates, two incumbents who favor the bond — Kevin Moran and Christopher Ashley — squared off against two challengers who oppose it — Mary Layton and Kris Clement. All four contenders agree the current facilities are inadequate, but the challengers think the price tag is too high, and they want more time to assess alternatives. Layton says she firmly supports better workplaces for police, firefighters and public works crews, but wants to make sure they are affordable in a town where some residents are struggling to pay their tax bills.

“So finding that happy balance is the trick, and it's been controversial and it’s gone in a couple of different directions, so the voting booth may be the ultimate arbiter of how that turns out,” Layton said.

“This is when we should do it, because if we wait even a year, the thing could be costing us another million dollars if interest rates went up one and a half percent." - Keith Moran, select board member

Addressing the forum, incumbent Keith Moran said low interest rates, plus the need to start construction before prices rise, convinced him to back the bond even though, at first, he was skeptical.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
Over 60 Norwich residents attend a select board candidate forum sponsored by the Norwich Women's Club.

“This is when we should do it, because if we wait even a year, the thing could be costing us another million dollars if interest rates went up one and a half percent,” Moran urged.

The select board has scaled down the project from an original price tag of $7 million to around $3 million. But if the bond fails, they say they will have to go back to the drawing board. The fire department will hold an open house on Saturday.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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