Williamstown tries to juggle 3 critical public service projects
The firehouse is so cramped that firefighters barely have enough room to maneuver when preparing to respond to a call, let alone to hold meetings or training exercises.
At the police station, which is housed in a corner of Town Hall -- a former fraternity house -- the two detention cells are inadequate and unhealthy.
And at Mount Greylock Regional High School, poor ventilation during a spell of humid weather this summer made the floors so slick with moisture that officials had to cancel classes for two days.
Outdated facilities in the Williamstown community badly need to be repaired or replaced. But with three major capital projects under consideration -- simultaneously -- the community is facing a vexing dilemma: incur ballooning tax bills or choose to fund only the most essential needs.
Officials with the town's taxing entities recently have come to the fore with specific building proposals -- a new or renovated high school, a new police station and a new firehouse.
According to one estimate based on current economies, if all three capital projects came online relatively soon, the first year's tax bill for an "average" home likely would increase by a total of about $671.
Williamstown Town Manager Peter Fohlin said he believes all three investments are "manageable." He said it is up to town voters to decide whether they are "affordable."
"The assertion has been made that the town cannot afford a police station, fire station and new school all at the same time," Fohlin said. "But that conclusion has been made without any analysis."
Fohlin calculated the following estimates for the owner of a home with the average assessed value of $353,300:
• A new high school, at a cost of about $50 million, leaving Williamstown's share at about $12 million financed over 30 years, would cause a $311 increase in the first year's annual tax bill.
• A new police station, with a pricetag of $4 million financed over 20 years, would cost an additional $127 a year.
• And a fire station, at an estimated cost of $9 million financed over 30 years, would raise the average annual tax bill by about $233.
All three building issues have been growing concerns for a number of years, and the leadership of all three agencies are actively seeking voter approval for the money to begin the steps toward buying land and/or building new facilities.
Residents already have shown their reluctance to spend. On Oct. 15, voters rejected a fire district proposal to spend $575,000 to purchase a Main Street property from the estate of its late owner, Kurt Lehovec, upon which to construct a new firehouse.
During a town meeting on the proposal by the Prudential Committee, which operates the fire district and its separate taxing entity that covers Williamstown, residents cited concerns over funding all three capital investments at the same time.
But the need still exists. The town's 25 volunteer firefighters have been struggling with cramped quarters for years, having little room for meetings, record keeping, training or storage.
An architectural concept drawn up for the fire district includes a four-bay, 19,000-square-foot fire station with an emergency generator, office, storage room, equipment cleaning room, meeting room, bunk room and small rec room, according to Prudential Committee Chairman John Notlsey. The cost was estimated at $9 million, which includes the cost of the land. At this point, the concept as presented has neither been accepted nor rejected by the committee.
Notlsey acknowledged that the district can function in the existing structure, "but we can't perform as well as we might."
He said the committee is aware that voters might seek to prioritize which of these projects are more important.
And he said he believes the police station is a greater need than a new fire station.
"We're not going to go out of business if we don't get a new [fire]station," he said. "But the police station is horrible. That place is an abomination. If you had to pick just one, to me it would be the police station."
But even if a new fire station is several years down the road, Notlsey said, the committee is still considering buying the Lehovec parcel because a piece of land that is big enough and in the right location may not come around again. Once they have the land, the process of building a new station could be extended to accommodate the town's financial needs.
"If we lose that land, we lose that location," Notlsey said. "We're not really pushing for a building right now, but if we get the land, at least we'll have a place to put it."
The fire district is expected to schedule another town vote this winter, when it will again seek approval to buy the Lehovec parcel and for a joint study of the feasibility of a combination police/fire station.
Williamstown also has formed a Public Safety Building Committee to study and report on the best possible approach to the need for a new police station and a new fire station.
In the police station, a three-story section of Town Hall with narrow stairways and limited sight-lines, storage space is scarce and workspaces are cramped and inefficient. Only one of two radio dispatch work stations can be used at a time because they are so close together; if they are both operating it causes audio feedback.
Fohlin said that a new police station has been a matter of discussion for years.
"We need a police station that the public will respect and that is respectful to the men and women who work there, and one that is healthy for the people who are detained there," he said.
Meanwhile, the School Committee is likely to set an election in the spring seeking voter approval to spend anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million to conduct a feasibility study on whether the district should construct a new building or renovate the existing high school.
The middle/high school building is becoming more expensive to maintain every year, and less effective as a educational facility.
In 2009, the ceilings of the locker rooms began collapsing, resulting in the closing of those areas for months and more than $1 million in repairs. The heating and ventilation systems are out-of-date and inefficient. At 183,000 square feet, the building is much bigger than the 140,000 square feet needed for current enrollment of about 600 students. The annual school budget shows that $400,000 a year is spent on maintenance, which includes a yearly heating bill of about $230,000.
The list goes on.
"We can build a school on a smaller footprint that provides a quality educational environment and is economically reasonable," said Rose Ellis, superintendent of the Williamstown-Lanesborough Public Schools. "The challenge for any project is the economics -- this will be a major cost to taxpayers, but we do feel a real sense of urgency in [the need for] getting out of this building. "
Last month, the district finally was accepted into the Massachusetts School Building Authority funding process after being rejected the previous six years.
If officials can meet the deadlines and provide the figures and assistance that the state requires, a new high school could be open in four to five years. But it would cost Williamstown taxpayers in the range of $12 million, with the state picking up at least 60 percent of the cost, and Lanesborough taxpayers paying around $8 million.
In the meantime, teachers, students, firefighters, police officers and others will continue to live, learn and work in some difficult surroundings.
"It's too bad about the timing," said Paula Consolini, co-chairman of the Mount Greylock Building Subcommittee, at a recent meeting, referring to the multiple projects. "People are definitely going to be concerned about the cost. I know it's a tough time for everyone, but if we give in to fear, we're going to be in trouble. We have to do the best we can."
An acute need
• The high school is becoming more expensive to maintain every year, and less effective as a educational facility. Earlier this year, the building earned some notoriety when it closed for two days when hot, humid conditions resulted in a slippery sheen of moisture on the floors, creating an unsafe situation. In 2009, the ceilings of the locker rooms began collapsing, resulting in locker rooms closed for months and more than $1 million in repairs. The heating system is out-of-date and inefficient. At 183,000 square feet, the building is much bigger than the 140,000 square feet needed for current enrollment of 600 students. The annual school budget shows that $400,000 a year is spent on maintenance, which includes a yearly heating bill of about $230,000.
• The police station that holds 14 employees and two detention cells is housed in a corner of town hall -- a former fraternity house -- and unable to facilitate modern law enforcement efficiencies. Storage space is scarce, the cells are inadequate and unhealthy, and workspaces are cramped and inefficient.
• The firehouse is too small for the size and types of contemporary vehicles necessary for effective firefighting, leaving little room for meetings, record keeping, training, storage, or even for the firefighters to maneuver while preparing to go out on a call.
By the numbers ...
New or renovated high school
• Cost: Roughly $50 million or more split between Williamstown ($12 million), Lanesborough ($8 million) and the state ($30 million)
• Tax impact: In Williamstown, $0.88 per $1,000 in assessed property value in the first year; $0.43 in the final year of a 30-year finance plan.
• First year impact on home with the average assessed value of $353,300: $311
New police station
• Cost: Roughly $4 million
• Tax rate impact in Williamstown: $0.36 per $1,000 in the first year; $0.21 in the final year of a 20-year finance plan
• First year impact on home with average assessed value of $353,300: $127
New fire station
• Cost: Roughly $9 million
• Tax rate impact in Williamstown: $0.66 per $1,000 in the first year; $0.31 in the final year of a 30-year finance plan
• First year impact on home with average assessed value of $353,300: $233
Total annual impact on tax bill for home at average assessed value early in the three financing plans: About $671
To reach Scott Stafford:
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