BRATTLEBORO -- Brattleboro's financial quandary got a little more challenging after a state fire inspection turned up more than $400,000 in code violations at the Municipal Center.
As part of the town's proposed renovation to the Municipal Center for the $14.1 million police-fire project, the Division of Fire Safety visited the building on March 27 to determine the conditions that need to be addressed for compliance with minimum life safety code requirements.
During the visit a state fire inspector found nine violations in the 130-year-old building and the town now has to come up with a plan to address the deficiencies whether or not the renovation is done to the building.
The town needs to come up with a plan before May 27, and will be expected to fix the fire code violations within a year or two.
"We were aware of the fact that there would be changes that would need to happen, and those changes would most likely happen at this location," interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland said about the Municipal Center. "If there was going to be something interesting or unknown, it was going to be at this building."
Moreland said it could cost the town an estimated $420,000 to make the upgrades and bring the municipal center up to code.
The town will have to build two fire-rated exit stair enclosures from each floor of the building and extend the sprinkler system into every room, including the basement vault, property room and the BCTV studio.
The basement corridor needs smoke detectors, some holes in the ceiling need to be fixed while other ceiling tiles need to be replaced, and all stairways in the building need to be enclosed to prevent the spread of fire, heat and smoke in the event of a fire.
The town also found out that a basement storage area has to be cleared, plastic recycle bins need to be moved and a large fuel load will have to be relocated away from the exit corridors.
"We have a specific to-do list, and we have 30 days to develop a plan to submit to the state for how we're going to remedy that," Moreland said. "We can choose to look at this as a project expense or we can choose not to look at it as a project expense, either which way it is a town expense."
Moreland said it was reasonable to consider the new $420,000 as part of the project's contingency plan, but committee member, and former Brattleboro Fire Chief, David Emery, said the project budget should not absorb the code violation costs.
"Had the Fire Marshall come in, without this project taking place, this would cost the town $420,000," Emery said. "This might be the cost of doing business to put the addition on here, but even if the addition is not put on, the town has to come up with money to fix that. So I don't think when we bonded this, that that $420,000 was part of the project."
At Tuesday night's meeting the Police-Fire Facility Building Committee endorsed a new plan to build a combined police and fire station on the site of the existing Central Fire Station on Elliot Street.
That plan still has to be approved by the Selectboard and, ultimately, Town Meeting Representatives.
So even if the police department moves out of the Municipal Center the town will have to find an additional $420,000 to address the violations at the Main Street building.
"The state of Vermont has visited this building, and they said, ‘You must do certain things immediately," Project Manager Steve Horton said at the Police-Fire Facility Building Committee, which was scheduled just before Tuesday night's Selectboard meeting. "It's a penalty. It is not a number that you have been aware of until this day. It penalizes all of the plans, but it is work that has to be considered and done ASAP."
Horton said those upgrades would have been largely taken care of within the original approximately $5.6 million renovation project for the Municipal Center. And now with the entire project, or at least potential work to the municipal center, up in the air, Horton said those fixes need to be addressed even if the project is put off until 2015.
However, Committee Chairwoman Robin Sweetapple said the code violations should not be paid for with money the town is bonding for the project.
"Why should this be part of the project if it has to be done?" Sweetapple asked. "Why is that being tacked on to the project when with or without an addition these life safety issues have to be addressed?"
Since voters rejected the proposed fiscal year 2015 budget during a special townwide referendum on April 17, the town's $14.1 million has been in question. At Tuesday night's Selectboard meeting, the board voted to put off the $9 million police fire bond for now, and the project is in a state of flux.
But Bruce Martin, Assistant State Fire Marshall with the Division of Fire Safety, said the code violations will need to be addressed one way or the other. Martin said state inspectors were called to the Municipal Center in early March to meet with project and town officials. During that visit Martin said it was hard not to notice the violations and on a return inspection the nine deficiencies were uncovered.
Martin said the Division of Fire Safety has a very long list of buildings to inspect in the state of Vermont, and the division concentrates on residential buildings where there tend to be more fires and fatalities. But the state also has plenty of old buildings occupied by municipalities or businesses. Eventually, he said, Brattleboro would have had to address the violations, but Martin said the proposed project brought the municipal center to the top of the inspection list following the project meeting.
"It would have happened in a year or in three years," said Martin. "This inspection happened because there was a project. That is how we get involved: Projects occur and we get involved. That is our job."
Martin said the state gives a little more latitude to the time frame for violation upgrades to non-residential buildings. He said it appears from the records he has that a thorough fire inspection was never done at the Municipal Center.
"We deal with a lot of old buildings in Vermont. It's the nature of our job," he said. "The provisions apply to new and old buildings. There is nothing unusual about how this evolved."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.