BRATTLEBORO—There are fractures in the armor housing Brattleboro’s police and fire departments.
Cracks in the walls, inefficient floor plans, doorways that are too small, and infrastructure that is either lacking or obsolete all contribute to health and safety deficiencies of the police and fire stations, said Town Manager Barbara Sondag.
“These aren’t maintenance issues we’re trying to address. These are structural issues that require a bigger fix,” she said.
Sondag offered that assessment at a recent meeting between representatives of the town, the police and fire departments, and the press at the Central Fire Station. With Representative Town Meeting Members voting on Oct. 20 on whether to bond for the $14.1 million in upgrades at the police and fire stations, town officials wanted to make the case for the project.
Decades in the making, the renovation project would deal with the police station located in the Municipal Center, Central Fire Station on Elliot Street, and the West Brattleboro Fire Station on Western Avenue near the West Brattleboro green.
According to Brattleboro Fire Chief Mike Bucossi, plans for the fire stations include fixes like building “slab on grade” to eliminate the issue of the fire trucks weighing more than the structures can hold and increasing the size of the bay doors to accommodate larger trucks.
Central Station, which is more than 60 years old, also has ventilation problems. According to Bucossi, exhaust accumulates in the garage when the trucks are running.
Meanwhile, the police station’s layout presents problems, according to officials.
Brattleboro Police Capt. Michael Fitzgerald said the police station, divided in half by a public hallway, makes it difficult to process and store evidence, process suspects, and maintain the confidentiality of victims.
The current police station lacks a “sally port,” or a secured entrance way, inspiring some prisoners to attempt escape.
Sondag said she wanted to make the situation clear: the deficiencies in the buildings “are not an inconvenience” for the departments, but are health and safety risks that must be addressed.
When suspects run and officers are injured during recapture, or when a victim of a crime must wait in a public hallway, these buildings are “putting people in jeopardy,” Sondag said.
“Walk around the buildings and look at the cracks,” she said.
Town employees have worked with engineering firm Black River to reduce the project’s budget from $14.6 million. The town has agreed to renovations over new construction, in part because of costs.
According to Sondag, building a new Central Station would have added $1.5 million to the price tag.
Construction plans for the three buildings have gone through multiple incarnations over the years, said Sondag. Designs have included building a new joint facility near Exit 2.
Sondag said that renovation plans on the table now represent a reasonably priced and successful plan.
Now, she added, people “need to sign on” to the project.
According to Sondag, Town Meeting Members have voted on, and not approved, the project before.
She said she hopes Town Meeting Members will see the need for new facilities and approve the bond vote in October.
Sondag said the old facilities have lost their ability to fully, and safely, serve the departments they house and the community they serve, she said.
When asked why past attempts to approve the project did not pass, Sondag said the answer would probably change depending on who was asked.
Reasons expressed to Sondag have spanned from the project’s timeline falling close to other big bonds like renovations at the high school, to resistance to moving the emergency facilities out of downtown.
In 2001, Sondag said meeting members voted down a $12 million bond question, in part because citing a facility near Exit 2 required purchasing, or taking, property.
The current design plan incorporates lessons learned from past attempts, she said.
One concern facing town employees is funding the project. According to Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland, interest rates are the lowest in 20 years.
Still, interest on a $14.1 million bond over 20 years adds up, said Sondag, estimating that with interest over the bond’s duration, the cost would equal about $20 million.
The town has sought other funding options than the traditional hiking of municipal property taxes. Chances of securing a grant, said Sondag, are slim to none.
A 1 percent local option tax will also be considered at the Oct. 20 meeting. Based on current sales projections, Sondag said a 1 percent sales tax could raise about $13.2 million, requiring only about $6 million from property taxes.
“The numbers are actually pretty significant,” she said.
The 1 percent tax is one of three option taxes that the state allows towns to levy. Brattleboro already has the other two taxes in effect — on rooms and meals, and on alcohol.
The two votes are separate questions. The bond will be decided via Australian, or secret, ballot, while the tax will be done through a standing vote.
That leaves a nail-bitting question for the police and fire departments. Will meeting members ax the facilities project if they don’t support the 1 percent tax?
“You can never really separate something from what you need and how you pay for it,” said Sondag.
In Sondag’s opinion, the police and fire facilities need repairing and “unless we solve the problem, the problem stays.”
Also, delaying the project could translate into a bigger bottom line due to increased interest rates, and higher construction costs.
“This isn’t a project I would take on if it wasn’t necessary,” she said. “Doing nothing is not an option.”
If approved, Sondag expects the town would start on the project, in some form, in 2013.
“We’re very confident of the product we brought forward,” said Fitzgerald. “Now it’s up to the voters.”
Bucossi said he feels “optimistic” about the upcoming Special Town Meeting.