BRATTLEBORO—After almost four years of starts and stops, overturned budgets, passionate Representative Town Meeting debates, and hard work by supporters and opponents alike, the construction phase of the Police-Fire Facilities Project has begun.
For anyone who has attended a groundbreaking, the following will feel familiar: a line of town officials and volunteers, complete with hardhats and shovels, posed before a pile of dirt.
For the town officials, volunteers, firefighters, and police officers who attended the groundbreaking for Fire Station 2 in West Brattleboro, however, the Aug. 4 event marked a new chapter many doubted would ever start.
Representative Town Meeting approved $14.1 million to renovate the town’s two fire stations and police station in 2012. Town staff had identified major safety problems in the buildings decades ago.
The project stalled, however, after the town borrowed approximately $5 million and started the project’s design phase. In 2014, the fiscal year 2015 budget was defeated in a town-wide referendum. The board and RTM decided against borrowing additional funds.
A renewed effort
The Selectboard relaunched the project last year. In March, at a Special Representative Town Meeting, meeting members approved moving the police station from downtown to Black Mountain Road.
Plans for Station 2 include demolishing the current station, which abuts South Street. Contractors will build the new station next door in what is now an informal parking area bordering Western Avenue.
Renovations and an addition are planned for Central Fire Station on Elliot Street later this fall. The town has purchased property for the police station on Black Mountain Road. The Brattleboro Reformer currently occupies the property. At this stage, the newspaper will remain on Black Mountain Road and lease space from the town.
At the groundbreaking ceremony, town officials thanked those involved with making the renovation project a reality.
Robin Sweetapple, Chair of the Police-Fire Facility Building Committee that’s charged with overseeing the project, summed up the crowd’s sense of cautious excitement.
After three years of committee work and watching the project regularly grind to a halt, Sweetapple said with a smile, “This seems to really be happening. I’m so excited for them [firefighters and police officers].”
Despite the delays, Sweetapple continued, aspects of the project worked out better than expected, like moving the police to Black Mountain Road.
“Maybe we just needed to wait until enough stars aligned,” she said.
Sweetapple acknowledged that many people opposed the project because they worried about rising taxes. The volunteer members of the project oversight committee are taxpayers too, she said.
‘We’re all converts’
In the committee’s early days, not all the committee members supported the project, Sweetapple added. After touring the existing stations and working on the project, however, members’ opinions changed, she continued.
People needed only to watch firefighters maneuver the ladder truck through the too-small bay doors of Central Station to understand that the project needed to happen, she said.
“We’re all converts,” Sweetapple said.
Safety issues at the three stations include mold, asbestos, and structural issues (such as fire trucks too heavy for the floor at Central Station).
When asked what lessons Sweetapple learned while serving on the oversight committee, she said the town should have borrowed all the project money — approximately $14 million — at once instead of breaking the borrowing into two loans of $5 million and $9 million.
Yes, borrowing two smaller amounts saves the town money, Sweetapple said. Unfortunately, it also delayed repairs to the town’s essential emergency services’ buildings.
A happy Fire Chief Michael Bucossi pointed to the site work underway near Station 2: contractors took down some trees, the rebar for the floor is due any day, a sewer line has been connected to the municipal system.
“They’re full steam ahead,” he said.
Bucossi characterized the mood of his staff as “cautiously optimistic.”
Experiencing so many setbacks, he said, had created some uncertainty.
On this day, however, seeing the groundbreaking and the construction vehicles, their excitement has picked up, Bucossi said.
Bucossi thanked all the people involved with the project, such as Town Manager Peter Elwell and Project Manager Steve Horton.
“I learn stuff everyday,” Bucossi said adding that he bugs Horton and Elwell with questions daily.
Bucossi said he’d never undertaken a large renovation project before and worried he’d miss crucial details.
The Fire Chief also thanked members of the oversight committee and Town Meeting Members for keeping an eye on the project’s budget.
“I’m very grateful for everything,” he said.
Bucossi said the fire and police departments worked closely on the facilities project, often providing support in difficult times. He looks forward to work starting on the new police station later this year.
“Overall, [these projects are] good for the town,” Bucossi said.