Tuesday October 2, 2012

$14-million question

BRATTLEBORO -- After decades of planning, at least one failed vote, and countless hours of debate, the Brattleboro Selectboard is ready to take its new $14.1-million renovation plan for the police and fire stations to the public.

Town meeting representatives will vote on the bond at a special representative town meeting on Saturday Oct. 20.

The first public information session is scheduled for this Wednesday, Oct. 3, at 6:30 p.m. at the Gibson Aiken Center, with a second information meeting set for Wednesday, Oct. 17, at 6:30 p.m. at the Gibson-Aiken Center.

Fire and police staff have scheduled two public tours of the existing facilities on Saturday, Oct. 6, from 9 to 11 a.m. and on Wednesday, Oct. 10, from 6 to 8 p.m.

Town Manager Barbara Sondag said town meeting representatives, and the general public, are invited to come down to the police station in the municipal center, and to the fire stations on Elliot Street and on Western Avenue, to get a first hand look at the existing conditions and to talk to staff about the architect’s plans for the emergency response facilities.

"We are talking about health and safety issues here. These issues are more than inconveniences," Sondag said during a recent interview at the fire station. "We’ve identified the problem and we think we’ve come up with a solution. Doing nothing is not an option."

The Selectboard is recommending the plan which includes almost $5.6 million in upgrades to the police station, about $7 million for the central fire station on Elliot Street, and another $1.5 million for the West Brattleboro station.

Sondag said she hopes people come out to the meeting Wednesday, and to one of the two public tours, to hear about the proposal and ask town officials about why they are looking for support for the $14.1 million bond.

"It has been a long road to get here and as we get close to the bond vote we are trying to encourage citizens to come and see the need," Sondag said. "We want people to come down and take a look around so they understand what the problem is."

The town’s main fire station was built in 1947 and Chief Mike Bucossi said he has a memo from 1967 asking the then-town manager to start looking at a potential bond vote to upgrade the facility.

Bucossi said there has been a lot of give and take while the town developed the most recent plan.

And while both departments might prefer new buildings, which would increase the cost by about $1.5 million, Bucossi said the plan on the table represents the best option at this point.

"This is not a maintenance issue. We take care of these buildings and have spent a lot of money on them over the years," he said. "There is nothing fancy in this. This plan is functional and reasonable. We feel good about it and we want the public to support us."

Through the years the town has talked about a range of solutions, including the option to purchase a parcel of land outside of the downtown and construct a brand new combined police and fire facility for $12 million.

That vote was rejected by town meeting representatives in 2001.

Town meeting representatives on Oct. 20 will also vote on a proposed 1-percent local option tax which would raise revenue for the bond payments.

Projected payments on the bond would raise the tax rate by about 10.5 cents and revenue from the proposed option tax could slice that by more than half, according to Finance Director John O’Connor.

Town meeting representatives will cast independent votes on the tax, and then on the bond.

Throughout all of the years selectboards have talked about different ideas and earlier this year the board hired Black River Design Architects to investigate the town’s options for addressing the issues at the three stations.

The engineers looked at a range of ideas, including tearing down the existing stations and building new.

Sondag said the plan on the table is the most cost effective option and now she wants the town to support the proposal so Brattleboro can finally address the structural and safety issues.

"We have old facilities that have problems and they are becoming less functional all the time," Sondag said. "For the last 20 years people have been asking us to solve these problems and we feel like we have a solution. Now we just need people to sign on."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com or at 802-254-2311 ext. 279.