On the day before his first debate, Selectmen Chairman George Dixon spent several hours in Arlington, MA taking a fire station tour and talking with Fire and Planning Board officials about the renovations that took place in recent years at that town's three fire houses. This was in response to concerns that Roland Van Liew talked about at open session, errr, I mean the candidate introductions, during Monday night's Selectmen meeting. RVL stated that Chelmsford should consider renovating the Center Fire Station rather than building a new one because Arlington was able to do that for far less money.
It is worth noting that what I actually said was that Chelmsford should carefully study renovation of the Center Fire Station because that has not been done, and the reason it has not been done is that the Town Manager took study of renovations “off the table” by fiat in April of 2009. I presented Arlington as an illustrative example of the fact that extensive renovation/refurbishment has been done in other towns at a reasonable cost – certainly lower in cost than what it costs to build a new fire station.
Selectmen Dixon tells the ITR that, while the renovations were indeed cost-effective and beautiful, it's a completely different scenario than we face here in Chelmsford. He said to think of the Chelmsford Fire Station as if it were a house with a basement below and you wanted to drop the first floor several inches. There are load bearing walls and significant safety concerns, not to mention the cost involved in such a massive project.
Structural engineers have confirmed that such renovations are not only possible, but less expensive than current proposals for a brand new station. Arlington was presented as an illustrative example of why renovation should not be “off the table.” Of course it’s a different scenario. The Arlington station presented additional challenges and costs that we do not have for Center Fire Station, as it was built in the 1920s and had not been upgraded since. Sure, the floor situation is indeed different but not a huge problem. Replacing the floor is cited above as a “massive project.” I don’t know that I agree that a project costing hundreds of thousands of dollars is indeed “massive,” particularly when compared with $7.5 million for a new station.
To be a little more specific about Center Fire Station’s floor and possible extension of space, if you rebuild the entire floor, you have an opportunity to install steel I-beams that extend out beyond the rear wall (maybe 8' or more). The term is "cantilevering" and it’s a very strong form of support; buildings over 40 stories have been built using cantilever engineering. You would then have an additional 8 feet times the length of the entire building as first floor space, and possibly second floor space as well if desired. The new rear wall would be built on the edge of the new 8' additional floor space. It is also possible to simply extend the entire foundation footprint back to the end of the rear property line.
Such an approach doesn’t require any land takings as the area in question is already town-owned land. This approach hasn’t been “thoroughly explored” because renovation has been “off the table” for three years now, and the Town Manager uses that as an excuse to say we need to relocate. It’s balderdash.
At the Arlington Highland fire station, all they had to do was dig down 8 to 10 inches into the concrete slab floor on the grade of the land so the truck could fit in. Even still, with the floor work and several upgraded amenities, the cost of renovating that station was more than 4 million dollars according to the Arlington Planning Board and not the 2.6 million dollars that RVL stated Monday night. The Center Fire Station here in town is also about three times as big as Arlington's Highland station; their fire house holds an engine and two ambulances, we have a need to house a minimum of five trucks.
Unfortunately, there are several significant errors in the above paragraph. Arlington’s Highland Station is 6,500 square feet; Center Fire Station is 9,000 square feet. So how does that make Center Station “three times as big?” Also, public records show the total cost of the Arlington renovation at approximately $3,546,000 (that is NOT “more than 4 million dollars”). That total included some $850,000 for external masonry, and another $240,000 for roof repairs. Those costs are unlikely to be in play for Center Station as the exterior is in good condition. Therefore what I conveyed to the BOS was that the INTERIOR of Arlington's Highland Station had been completely refurbished for under $2.6 million, and I was quite specific about that in order to be as “apples to apples” as possible. It needs to be emphasized that Highland Station has all-new heating, ventilation, A/C, plumbing, and electrical wiring. It’s not at all clear that Chelmsford’s Center Fire Station refurbishment would need to be that extensive. Here is what I wrote and said:
“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.”
There is no apples to apples comparison between Chelmsford and Arlington. Dixon said he was glad he took RVL's concern seriously and honestly hoped he was right, but the onsite visit and conversations with Arlington town officials verified that we cannot renovate the Center Fire Station. He added, "The one thing I have learned over the years is that the internet is great, but nothing beats researching facts yourself and meeting with the right people one-on-one."
Researching facts with principals is important, but so is careful analysis of the data. Our researchers did in fact personally speak with officials in Arlington to make sure they were happy with the results, but we also analyzed the numbers to determine which expenditures are most applicable to Center Fire Station. That is why we know that $850,000 was spent on external masonry alone, a significant cost in new construction but not needed for Chelmsford’s Center Fire Station refurbishment.
One thing I have learned is that Chelmsford Town officials love to spend money on studies but frequently ignore them. The town spent $140,000 on studies that indicate that repair is most definitely feasible, and in fact desirable both from a cost and location standpoint. “The fire department should ideally locate fire department headquarters to a location close to the current location,” read Pat Maloney on Monday. In a desperate attempt to neutralize that statement, Cohen replied, “So that didn’t say that the current location is the ideal location.” Pat Maloney simply replied, “I’m not aware of any study that says the current site is the best site.” You can judge for yourself whether these officials are being disingenuous with us.
In closing, let me emphasize that Chelmsford does NOT need additional bays. When questioned about the reason for additional bays last Monday, Pat Maloney cited the need to park pickup trucks. Pickup trucks! Chelmsford already has a fire truck in operation for every 3500 residents, while Nashua has a truck for every 6900 residents. It is my belief that the reason the Town Manager wants additional bays is because he wants additional capacity for a town-run ambulance service. At present, I am neither for nor against a town-run service, since I haven’t carefully studied the issue. But I am very much against trying to bury capital costs as a back door way to make financial proposals in order to make a town-run ambulance service look more cost competitive.
I’d like to be able to commend George Dixon for looking into this but it’s clear he was more interested in, once again, generalizing why it can’t be done rather than objectively analyzing how it can be done. It is not reasonable for town officials to insist on spending millions and millions of your tax dollars on a new fire station when they do not know how much it would cost to renovate the station we already have.
Roland Van Liew