Officials weigh in on issues facing Brattleboro's ailing police, fire departments
BRATTLEBORO -- Brattleboro's police and fire chiefs know that something has to be done to the town's aging emergency response facilities.
All of the Selectboard members, even those who are in favor of slowing down the $14.1 million project, understand that the police station and two fire stations need help.
And most of the taxpayers who rejected the budget during a special referendum on April 17 admit that years of deferred projects and the unsafe health conditions in the three stations need to be corrected.
Now, with the Selectboard poised Tuesday to officially put the project on hold, town officials are trying to figure out how the town is going to proceed.
Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland has asked Project Manager Steve Horton to come up with a list of projects that have to be addressed and what it will cost the town to take care of the pressing issues.
Among those are the fire trucks that belch exhaust into the sleeping quarters at Central Station at Elliot Street, as well as the crumbling floor, leaking roof and small bay doors.
There is black mold in the West Brattleboro Fire Station.
And at the police station there is no secure entrance and the holding cells are located down a steep staircase.
"The board has not pulled the trigger yet, and the project has not yet been put on hold," interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland said. "But if we are going to be making some decisions then we have to hear from the experts. We have to find out what it is going to cost to make the necessary repairs and remedy the conditions that have come from years of deferred maintenance."
Brattleboro has been debating the conditions of its police and fire station for almost 30 years.
At a special Representative Town Meeting in October 2012 the project was approved and a project manager was hired.
An architect has finished about 60-80 percent of the drawings, but the April 17 referendum that rejected the FY 2015 budget was seen as a statement on the impact of the project, and the additional $9 million bond that would be taken out next year, on the tax rate.
At this week's Selectboard meeting, three members said they would not move ahead with the project and the other two board members said they would only support a scaled back project.
The town was hoping to get a jump on this year's short construction season.
And now everyone involved with the project is trying to figure out what is going to happen next.
There was a three-and-a-half hour meeting Friday to discuss the project and the Police-Fire Facilities Building Committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday at 4 p.m. for the first time since the April 17 referendum
The committee will then make a presentation to the Selectboard at its special budget meeting at 6:15 p.m.
After the project was approved in 2012 the town took out a $5 million bond to allow it to begin paying for engineers and pre-construction costs.
Moreland stressed that the $5 million is a completely arbitrary number and has no bearing on how much of the work can, or should, be completed.
"No one knows what it will take to fix the health, safety and structural issues," said Moreland. "We need to start coming up with some options, but whatever we do we have to make sure it makes sense."
The town does seem to have a little more time to make a decision than previously thought.
Originally the $9 million bond was going to be taken out through the state bond bank which has a deadline of June 13.
Brattleboro Finance Director John O'Connor said the town has been asking around, and it appears as though the money can be borrowed through a bank.
If the June 13 deadline is not met, the town can still borrow some money later in the summer or in the fall.
Police Chief Gene Wrinn said it has been frustrating to watch everything unfold over the past few weeks, after working on the project for three years and having it be approved by town meeting representatives.
"Right now I really don't know where we are headed," he said. "I truly understand the heavy tax burden the town is taking on, but we owe it to the officers who are doing the job people are asking them to do to provide a safe working environment. We need to do something to address the life safety issues in the building. We need to do something to work this out."
Wrinn said the project was developed to address the department's needs now and into the future, and he is worried that if the project is scaled down then the same questions will come up again in the next five to 10 years.
Though he wasn't giving up yet.
"I believe that the town will do the right thing in the end," he said. "I'm still optimistic."
Brattleboro Fire Chief Mike Bucossi also said it has been hard to watch the project unravel within months of when the first shovels were supposed to be plunged into the ground.
"It's frustrating. I thought we did our job. We tried to make people understand why we need this," Bucossi said. "It's been approved four times now. It's frustrating."
Bucossi said upgrades at Central Station have been put off for years because there appeared to be an understanding that a comprehensive project was just beyond the horizon.
If the Selectboard does vote to reduce the scale of the project Tuesday then Bucossi said the health, safety and structural issues will have to be addressed right away.
"This facility belongs to the taxpayers. It is their building and we have to take care of it," he said. "We have been told for years to hold on, to keep it together, and that the something was going to be done. Now we're at the point where something has to be done."
Bucossi also said he understood the tax rate implications, but he said many of the problems cannot be simply addressed with a less expensive plan.
The fire station floor, the aging generators, the leaking roof and the small bay doors all require structural, and likely expensive, solutions.
"There are problems that can't be fixed short of an addition or short of adding new facilities," he said. "We can't brace our floor up. This is space we need to make sure the department has what it needs to do its job."
Robin Sweetapple is the chairwoman of the Police-Fire Facilities Building Committee, and she said after a few weeks of watching the lead up to the vote and then listening to the Selectboard and to residents talk about the tax rate and budget, the committee is now going to have to make some tough decisions.
She said Horton, the project manager, is trying to determine what the crucial elements of the project are, and how much it will cost to address those issues.
The decisions are going to be even tougher if the difference between the original project and the smaller one is a few million dollars.
"The committee's main concern from the start was to try to save money, and we have to find out if it makes sense to go forward with a bare bones project if we are going to be coming back in five or 10 years," Sweetapple said. "It's disappointing that this is happening at the eleventh hour but this is democracy, and this is how it works. Everyone wants to make sure we have facilities that are safe for the employees. Whenever you have a project, you never know it is done until the check is signed.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.
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