BRATTLEBORO — Citizens' concerns mostly revolved around the cost but also the necessity of projects that will at the very least bring police and fire facilities up to modern health and safety standards.
"I am a native here and long-time Brattleboro citizen. I believe we have been compromising our public safety here in this town too long," said Charlie Robb. "We've beaten this poor horse to death."
Over 50 attendees listened as town officials and department chiefs explained project alternatives described as "minimum required," "minimum prudent" and "long-term solution" at Academy School on Monday night.
Residents are currently paying back a $5 million bond taken out for similar projects envisioned three years ago. Steps were taken to begin upgrades and plans were developed, some of which are still relevant to options being proposed now.
"In early 2014, we were in fact getting close to being shovel-ready," said Selectboard Chairman David Gartenstein. "Town Meeting approved our budget in March 2014. But then we had what I've been calling a taxpayer rebellion and our budget was rejected by the voters at large."
The project was put on hold in order to get the budget passed and Town Manager Peter Elwell was soon hired. Alternatives were explored and executive sessions were held while the board looked at the Reformer building on Black Mountain Road until a purchase option agreement was signed. The building is secured until March, then there are two extension periods available to the town.
"We don't yet have agreement on Selectboard on how to proceed either procedurally or with respect to the substance of exactly what we should be proposing," Gartenstein said. "Those are things we want to hear from people about before we sit back down and make a decision on how to proceed."
Asbestos at the Central Fire Station is "literally falling off pipes" and there's "serious mold" at all three facilities, according to Elwell, who mentioned the "dangerous" diesel soot found in the living areas at both fire stations. Activities that should be private are handled publicly at the Municipal Center, where police are currently operating out of. That becomes a dignity issue. But safety is at sake as arrested individuals are brought through a side door into a tight space and walked down a narrow staircase. A video showcasing the tight space received sounds of awe from the audience.
Minimally but absolutely required are radio replacements, mold remediation and asbestos removal at all sites. Updates at the police department deal with the cell block access and separation of the men and women's locker rooms where only a shower curtain currently separates the two sexes. Altogether, those fixes would cost approximately $1.8 million. No additional borrowing would be necessary but authorizing the plan would need approval at Town Meeting.
The next plan estimated at $5.4 million would cover all those items while improving file storage and flow of space for police, and bringing a sally port to the Municipal Center so police can better secure their vehicles. Central Fire Station would see a roof replacement, electrical and plumbing upgrades, tower catwalk structural repairs and a metal garage to house a large apparatus. The West Brattleboro station's roof and windows would be replaced. All sites would become more handicap accessible.
A long-term solution "would provide everything we believe we need for the next 20 years" or longer, Elwell explained. Bringing the police department to Black Mountain Road and making all the fire department upgrades would cost approximately $11.8 million while renovating police space at the Municipal Center and addressing the fire department's needs would cost $12.8 million.
None of the plans include the $955,327 spent on design and planning from the 2013 bond. Approximately $4 million is left over to apply to any of the options moving forward.
The minimum prudent plan would require more borrowing in the neighborhood of $1.4 million or more, costing taxpayers approximately $14.36 annually per $100,000 property assessment on a 10-year term. The long-term plan at Black Mountain Road would cost taxpayers about $52.58 annually on every $100,000 assessment while the same plan at the Municipal Center would be $59.18. Elwell pointed out interest rates are as low as they've been in the last 40 years.
"The facilities are quite outdated," said Fire Chief Mike Bucossi before speaking in support of the long-term fixes. "What we'll gain here is some healthy, clean and safe facilities, not only for staff but for visitors and community members."
Central Station on Elliot Street would see a one-story addition rather than the two stories proposed in 2013. Spaces were moved around but the functions would remain the same as previously planned, Bucossi said, and a new hose tower would replace the current tower that is "basically falling apart." An elevator and lobby in the building would meet Americans with Disabilities Act codes. Storage would be improved. Moving the administrative area would allow for bigger vehicles thus bringing down the cost of future purchases as finding trucks to fit the station as is would be expensive. A section for a new apparatus would be built next to the gravel pit at the West Brattleboro station.
Police Chief Mike Fitzgerald showed floor plans for making improvements at both sites. Not only would flow be improved but the department could host training sessions rather than sending officers out of town to attend them. He expects upgrades or nicer facilities may help retain officers.
Elwell said having the Reformer continue its newspaper operations at Black Mountain Road, paying the town rent, would be part of the deal for at least the first five years of ownership. That site "meets all our critical needs," Fitzgerald said.
"We understand some of the concerns of response times," he said. "Drive times from the north end are longer."
But most officers are dispatched while out on patrol rather than from the police station. According to data collected between Nov. 1 and 15, the department received 237 calls. Officers responded from the station 83 times and from out in the community 154 times
West Brattleboro resident Nancy Miller suggested the possibility of putting off renovations at the West Brattleboro station for now.
"The budget as a whole is not going to go down," said Jane Southworth. "We're adding I'm afraid and so we don't have very many options to raise revenue other than taxes. So I hope Town Meeting and the Selectboard are thinking about creative ways to ask the Legislature for other options or something. Because those of us who are not affluent and are paying homeowner taxes, our homes are not going to go down in value either."
Former board member Dick DeGray said he had seen "this movie before" and called on residents to support the project because it served the people who serve them.
"Sticker shock is going to come," he said. "Maybe 90 percent of us believe it should go forward. The last project passed overwhelmingly with Town Meeting and then the following year your budget gets rejected."
Regular discussions of the project are expected during future board meetings. Questions and concerns from the informational meetings will be items addressed on future agendas.