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Police-Fire Facilities Project goes back to the drawing board

Town Manager announces intent to refine the project to find efficiencies

BRATTLEBORO—The Police-Fire Facilities Project will return to the drawing board.

Town Manager Peter Elwell said at the July 21 Selectboard meeting that he wanted architects to develop new concept plans for the Central Fire Station and Police Station. Plans for Station Two, the fire station in West Brattleboro, are okay to go.

The board approved $7,500 from the operating budget to develop the new concept plans.

Elwell added that he came before the board for approval because he thought the cost of developing new plans would exceed $10,000.

He added that, “strictly speaking,” under the Town’s purchasing regulations, the town manager can spend up to $10,000 without the board’s approval,

Under the board’s direction, Elwell started reviewing the three-building project earlier this year shortly after he started working for the Town.

According to Jan. 28 minutes of the Police-Fire Facility Committee, Elwell told the committee that the Selectboard had voted to pursue relocating the police station to Putney Road. Staff would pursue the next steps.

The board asked Elwell to bring a fresh set of eyes to the project and look for new, less expensive, solutions, said Selectboard Chair David Gartenstein.

“It’s a core need of the Town to provide for emergency services,” said Gartenstein. “The counter consideration is affordability.

“It remains our goal to do this work,” he added.

Up for consideration was removing a third floor from the Central Station plans. Elwell has also looked into whether the police station could remain at the Municipal Center or should relocate to another location.

Relocating would require purchasing property. Gartenstein said that these discussions have happened in closed executive sessions because they relate to real estate.

Gartenstein said he couldn’t say which properties were discussed because potential real estate sales “are confidential.”

He stressed that “no decisions have been made in executive session.”

Gartenstein said that public discussions would begin after the Town had updated numbers and plans.

Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald and Fire Chief Michael Bucossi said they had not attended the executive sessions but that Elwell had provided them with updates.

When asked if any of the suggested options for the police station stood out, Fitzgerald said, no.

“Anything is better than what we’ve got now,” he said.

Police are unique, he continued. The station’s location is not as important when responding to incidents compared to fire or rescue services.

Officers are mobile, Fitzgerald said. They respond to calls from wherever they are patrolling.

Fitzgerald noted, however, that the police station’s location matters to the public.

“We have to take that into consideration,” he said.

One of the many issues with the current police station is the public hallway it shares with other municipal offices.

Victims of crimes, citizens with questions, and suspects all “sit next to each other” in the public hallway, he said.

“It’s not fair and it’s not safe,” Fitzgerald said. “People need dignity and privacy and right now we’re not offering that.”

The police chief said it’s a quality-of-life issue.

Fitzgerald praised Elwell’s work on pursuing changes to the facilities project and said he had faith that Brattleboro’s citizens will support their emergency responders.

Fire Chief Bucossi said that Elwell approached him three weeks ago to provide a project update and ask if the department could do without the Central Station’s “third floor.”

In original plans, the third floor held rooms such as the municipal Emergency Operations Center (EOC), a meeting room, fitness room, and training room, said Bucossi.

Bucossi and Assistant Fire Chief Pete Lynch reconfigured the most recent floor plans and relocated the third floor rooms.

It was nice to have the option of reconfiguring plans rather than having an outside company who didn’t know the station or the station’s workflow plan out the building, he added.

Bucossi and Lynch then met with the department’s three shifts to update them on the possible changes.

“So we were very involved in the process,” he said.

“It’s a good proposal,” Bucossi said. The next phase for the Town is balancing cost versus benefit.

Bucossi noted that the reconfigured Central Station plans leave little room for future growth.

Part of the cost versus benefit consideration will include whether to construct the building in such a way as to allow for further expansion as the department changes over the next 15 or 20 years.

“We’re glad it’s back on track and we look forward to moving it forward,” Bucossi said of the project.

Representative Town Meeting (RTM) approved the project’s $14.1 million price tag in October 2012. The project has since met with opposition, some from the RTM.

The board put the facilities rehabilitation project on hold after voters defeated the fiscal year 2015 budget in a special town-wide referendum.

Spending on the project is also on hold pending a return to RTM. Although the body approved issuing a $4 million bond to start the first phase of construction, the project’s scope has changed significantly.

These changes require reauthorization from RTM before the the municipality can spend any more of the bond. Approximately $1 million has been spent on the project so far.

All the buildings have extensive “life safety” issues, such as mold issues, steep staircases, and poor air quality.

“If [the Town] can’t get authorization to do the expansion work, we will absolutely have to do the life safety work,” said Gartenstein. “One way or another that’s going to have to happen.”

Elwell added that simply fixing the buildings’ life safety issues was a “last resort” but not a solution.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #316 (Wednesday, July 29, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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