Police-fire project on hold until after budget vote
BRATTLEBORO -- At the last Selectboard meeting Chairman David Gartenstein commented on the past few turbulent months.
"I think it's fair to say that this has been a very vibrant time in the political and municipal life of Brattleboro," Gartenstein said at the beginning of the May 20 meeting.
And wrapped up in that vibrancy is the town's renovation project for its police and fire facilities, which for right now, is very much unresolved.
After voters overturned the FY 2015 budget on April 17 the board was forced to try to figure out what town meeting representatives, and the public, would be willing to accept for a new proposed spending plan.
Staff cuts were debated, and then taken off the table, and in the end the board was able to put together a new $15.8 million budget that reduced the proposed tax rate increase from about 8.5 cents to about 3 cents.
Town Meeting Representatives will vote on that budget on June 2, and until then, interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland said, the town's planned renovations to the police station, and two fire stations, will be put on hold.
"There was a desire from the Selectboard to decouple the decision about the police-fire project from the budget vote," Moreland said. "After we have a budget passed the board will turn its attention to the police-fire project, and look at the options for moving forward."
Among the many decisions the board did make in approving the new budget was to put off taking out the additional $9 million bond for the police-fire project.
Architects were about 70 percent done with their plans for the three buildings and Moreland said it was unclear how the board and Police Fire Facilities Oversight Committee will proceed once the budget is approved.
The original $14.1 million project, which included renovating all three buildings, is probably not going to be pursued.
At the last Police Fire Facilities Oversight Committee the committee made it clear that it did not want to only address the life safety and health issues at the three buildings.
The committee members said they were looking to invest enough in the town's emergency response facilities to protect the town from another renovation project into the future.
"What ever happens, the committee said it did not want a Band Aid fix," Moreland said. "They want a project that looks out 50 years. They want a project that will be useful to a couple of generations."
But how the committee and the board get from where they are today, toward a new approved project, is still up in the air.
Before the architects start working on a new plan the Selectboard, the project manager and the Police Fire Facilities Oversight Committee will have to come up with a solution they can agree on.
And once the board members have a project they can support a majority of the Town Meeting Representatives will have to approve it.
The town has spent more than $700,000 so far on the project, and Moreland hopes that not all of it is wasted.
If the West Brattleboro Fire Station is renovated as proposed, then those plans will be used.
And even if the police station is moved down to the Elliot Street Fire Station property, as was proposed at the last meeting, some of the plans from the original fire station renovation can probably be used.
"I suspect that most of the work can be salvaged," Moreland said. "Some of the elements of the plans can be used and some elements will not be fully developed."
Throughout the last few months the Selectboard has constantly reminded anyone who was listening that the FY 2016 budget was going to be even more challenging to write than the FY 2015 budget.
There are no surprise piles of money, or quick fixes to Brattleboro's ongoing budget woes.
Somehow a new plan will have to be developed that addresses the needs of the police and fire staff while not driving the tax rate beyond what town residents can accept.
And while the town's police officers and firefighters have been waiting for the town to approve the renovations to its facilities for more than 30 years, at least for now, they are going to have to wait a little bit longer.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.
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