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Westhampton residents OK borrowing for new $4.4M public safety complex

  • Westhampton Fire Chief Christopher Norris stands in front of the department in January 2017. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO



Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2018

WESTHAMPTON — Residents took a step Tuesday toward building a new public safety complex after they voted narrowly to allow the town to borrow funds to construct a facility that will house the police and fire departments.

Nearly 200 residents filed into the Elementary School’s gymnasium for a special Town Meeting to vote on borrowing $4.4 million to pay for designing, constructing, equipping and furnishing a new, 10,700-square-foot public safety complex where the current one stands at 48 Stage Road. It houses both the fire and police departments and was originally built in 1948 as a highway garage.

Residents voted 125-57 in favor of a Proposition 2½ override to fund the project. The vote required a two-thirds majority and the motion passed with a 69 percent approval.

This vote followed three information sessions, and since the motion passed, there will be a separate ballot question for voters to approve the funding that will be appropriated outside the levy limit.

That election date will be after Oct. 16 and will be determined on Monday, according to Assistant Clerk Cheryl A. Provost. If passed, it would constitute the largest project in the town’s history.

A seven-person Public Safety Review Committee that included town leaders, fire and police personnel was formed to consider the options for a more functional public safety complex, while a feasibility study by Caolo & Bieniek Associates of Chicopee looked at two options: renovating and expanding the existing building or demolishing the current building to make way for a complex.

The Public Safety Review Committee recommended building a new safety complex to the Select Board, according to board chairman Philip Dowling.

“We are asking the town for what is needed for the next 40 to 50 yeas,” Fire Chief Christopher Norris said.

In a presentation prior to the vote, Norris outlined many of the issues the police and fire departments face at their current location.

The 7,282-square-foot, two-story building has a lack of space that is affecting the Fire Department’s functions, Norris said. With little room for fire apparatus there is an increased risk for accidents and damages to vehicles, he said.

In his slideshow presentation prior to the vote, Norris showed pictures of how close fire trucks were to the back walls of the building and how little room there was for fire personnel to put on their protective gear.

Other issues at the facility include a lack of compliance with Massachusetts Handicap Accessibility or American with Disabilities Act regulations, and the issue of the facility’s exposure to diesel fuel exhaust due to a lack of an exhaust extraction system.

Stephen Holt, chairman of the Public Safety Review Committee and assistant fire chief, said the review committee visited four fire stations in the state and discussed with fire chiefs what they liked and did not like about their facilities to get a more informed perspective.

Town financial adviser Clark H. Rowell gave residents an overview of how the project would impact their tax rates. He said taxes would increase by 23 or 24 cents in 2020, but there would be no further impact after that.

“The plan will be that for fiscal year ’18 and fiscal ’19 tax rates are going to be relatively level, and there will be just one jump — 23, 24 cents — in fiscal ’20, and thereafter level for funding,” Rowell said.

He said the plan is also taking into account four other capital needs for the town, including two that have been authorized already and two that might be authorized before the bonds are done, and are included in the scope of the plan, according to Rowell.