Monday evening’s BOS meeting included a presentation regarding the proposal to build a new $7.5 million fire station, this time behind town offices.
The interesting point is that the whole pyramid of supposed logic justifying the new plan rests on the fallacious foundation that we “must” or “should” build a new fire station.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Paul Cohen is anxious to bury the fact that repair and expansion options – mostly for parking – have been limited by his bungling (intentional or otherwise) of the explicit directive to negotiate with Eastern Bank for land behind Center Fire Station in February of 2009 from the Permanent Buildings Committee. He’s willing to have us pay millions of dollars for an unnecessary relocation so that there will be less impetus for investigation and rectification of the “9 North Road” scandal.
You know the facts. Chelmsford doesn’t need a new fire station. We don’t need more floor space, we already have more fire stations than Nashua, NH. We don’t need more bays, we already have as many bays and fire trucks as Nashua, NH. We don’t need a new facility, the exterior brickwork and structural soundness of Center Fire Station is excellent.
Yes, the floor needs to be replaced. At Monday’s BOS meeting, Cohen said again that the floor can’t be permanently repaired. Well, how come Arlington was able to completely replace the same type of floor in their Highland station? Cohen said once again that repair “has been thoroughly explored” yet no bids have ever been solicited.
Arlington completely refurbished its Highland station interior last year at a total cost of $2.6 million. That station was built in the 1920s. It has never before been upgraded. They had to install all new HVAC, electrical and plumbing. All kitchen appliances, gym equipment, and bunking is brand spanking new. The floor was lowered 20 inches so that larger apparatus could enter the building without impacting the historical integrity of the building. In other words, they had more problems to solve than Chelmsford does, yet they were able to figure it out.
Monday’s meeting included several interesting observations from the principals. An expert engineer testified that new construction costs about $350/sq.ft. whereas renovation/refurbishment costs about $100 to $150. In other words, the bang for the buck Chelmsford would get from repairing Center Fire Station will be greater than anything that can be obtained with new construction. The reasons for this have been explained by Permanent Buildings Committee chair Pat Maloney previously, so it’s clear town officials should understand this by now.
Cohen, for the umpteenth time over the past two-and-a-half years, stated that there is “no better time than the present” to build a new fire station. He then went on to explain that the proposed cost of the debt – $637,500/yr for the next 20 years – would cause a spike in taxes this coming fiscal year but would have reduced impact moving forward. So why hurry and create that crunch on taxpayers this coming year? Because, said Cohen, “it’s only about $50 per household.” Yes, for 20 years. That’s $1,000 per household.
The Town Manager repeatedly stated that the proposal to build a $7.5 million station “is within the Proposition 2.5% levy limit.” What he doesn’t say is that it means your property taxes are going up 3.7%, not 2.5%. (The reasons are too involved to get into right here.) That’s after already going up 60% over the past decade. Verbal obfuscation by the Town Manager won’t change that.
Cohen also stated, “Even if you repair and patch it, you’re never going to have an adequate facility.” I guess that’s true, if you “patch” with clunky cribbing (as Chelmsford has done) or bubblegum and baling wire. But Arlington has shown us that a complete modernization and refurb is feasible and is just not that expensive.
Cohen also said, “Clearly the current space, configuration and size doesn’t meet the needs of the fire department.” Nobody on the BOS questioned this ridiculous assertion. The fire chief has stated unequivocally that current equipment meets the current and projected needs of the community. And even if more space is needed for administration, a repair/refurbishment project would include the same opportunity to use basement space at Town Hall that will shortly be vacated by the DPW. The BOS already has a proposal to have that space refurbished and used by the Fire Department. There’s no requirement for a new fire station in order to do that.
And, of course, repair/refurbishment will not eliminate some of the parking behind Town Hall as the new fire station proposal will.
But Paul Cohen said during Monday’s meeting, “I don’t believe there is any other low cost permanent solution to the problem. You can mask it for a few years and keep cribbing and flooring the current station but at some point you’re gonna have to do something to that building and, again, it’s been thoroughly examined – I mean, this committee has been working on this project for over four years. Sooner or later you’re going to have to meet the demand of what it’s going to cost.”
That’s right, and Arlington has shown us what it’s going to cost. Under $2.6 million. And Chelmsford doesn’t have a lot of the problems Arlington had to address. So how come Chelmsford can’t figure this out? Because the Town Manager took repair off the table by fiat three years ago! Three of the five options that the Permanent Building Committee recommended to the BOS in March of 2009 involved exploring repair of the current fire station. One month later, the Town Manager announced, without explanation, that all repair options were “off the table.” Now we know why – repair options raise uncomfortable questions about why he put off Eastern Bank’s offer to sell land behind the fire station to the town for a pittance.
And it raises uncomfortable questions as to why the town was willing and able to take the DPW site by eminent domain and pay the owner a premium of a million dollars over appraisal values provided to the town, but wasn’t willing to entertain the notion of taking the 40-foot strip of land Cohen says he wanted behind the fire station, which would have cost the town, oh, maybe $10,000 tops in compensation to either Eastern Bank or even the Eliopouloses. (The Eliopouloses obtained the entire area comprising Center Park for about $50,000.)
Jon Kurland explicitly states that 9 North Road was NOT included in the “thorough” analysis of sites by the Permanent Buildings Committee. Cohen then states, “There is no perfect site. If we try to find the perfect solution, we’re going to end up with no solution.” But neither he nor Kurland have any qualms about rejecting the current site because it’s not perfect.
Pat Maloney read from the expensive study on fire station options that was completed a few years ago. “The fire department should ideally locate fire department headquarters to a location close to the current location.” Well, you can’t get any closer to the current location than the current location! But Paul Cohen inexplicably interjects, “So that didn’t say that the current location is the ideal location.” And Pat Maloney, not realizing the irony, plays the perfect yes-man replying, “I’m not aware of any study that says the current site is the best site.”
Pat Maloney also stated, “If we had more land over there, we’d have loved to keep the fire station over there. I think with upgrades you’d be talking about a similar amount of money [to the $7.5 million cost of a new fire station].”
Mr. Maloney is probably not aware of the Arlington Highland Station project that comprehensively upgraded an ancient station, while maintaining its historic integrity, for $2.6 million. But the selectmen and Paul Cohen are aware of it, because I briefed them on it previously. Yet Cohen sticks to his fatuous self-serving misinformation, and the selectmen assent like lackeys instead of bosses.
Please support challengers on the ballot April 3, and vote against any debt for a new fire station until repair options have actually and truly been “thoroughly explored.”
Roland Van Liew