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Lenox residents to vote on major proposed projects. How will the $70 million cost affect the outcome?

The Lenox wastewater treatment plant from above

The Lenox wastewater treatment plant in Lenox Dale will be updated to meet federal Environmental Protection Agency requirements. The project is estimated to cost $45 million.

LENOX — Voters will decide the fate this week of two town projects estimated to cost a combined $70 million

The first is an upgraded, expanded wastewater treatment plant to meet federal environmental requirements with a $45 million price tag, based on a 2019 federal permit for wastewater discharge quality.

The second is a modern public safety complex for the town’s emergency services departments for $25 million. It would be sited on up to five acres of a 19-acre town parcel at the Saw Mill Brook land on Housatonic Street opposite Caligari Hardware, at the Route 7 & 20 bypass intersection.

The combined funding total represents the town’s largest financial commitment since a series of public school projects from 1966 to 1996.

What’s at stake

Voter approval for each project requires a two-thirds supermajority at this Thursday’s special town meeting, beginning 7 p.m. at the Duffin Theater in Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, 197 East St.

The Select Board, the Finance Committee and the Permanent Buildings Committee have all voted to support the funding requests.

In a letter to voters, Town Manager Christopher Ketchen pointed out that the borrowing proposals are based on years of planning, deliberation and modifications.

At previous town meetings, voters have green-lit over $5 million in design and engineering work for the wastewater treatment plant upgrade and the public safety facility. On Thursday, the requested approvals are for construction funding. Because of the financial magnitude, Ketchen will provide financing details.

Wastewater treatment plant

Since the upgrade and expansion of the existing facility on Crystal Street in Lenox Dale is a federal requirement, Ketchen has emphasized that local taxpayers would not be on the hook for the total cost.

An anticipated grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture could defray up to one-third of the $45 million. But first, the USDA wants evidence that the town fully supports the project.

Major funding would come from 40-year municipal bonds. Interest rates for a triple-A rated town like Lenox are 3.6 percent. The town would be paying an estimated $1,250,000 annually to cover its share of the financing, starting in Fiscal Year 2027 or later. At that time, there would be an impact on property tax bills.

Currently, about 55 percent of Lenox is served by town sewer connections.

“We’ve been waiting for the EPA to give us the standards and rules we have to meet for phosphorus removal,” said Edward Lane, a Select Board member who chairs the Permanent Buildings Committee. “It’s an addition to the facility we now have, which was built in the early 1970s and its life span is gone.”

A major portion of the plant would be dismantled to accomplish the upgrade, he explained. Eventually, the town would face a potential fine of at least $10,000 a day if the upgrade is not completed.

According to Neal Maxymillian, a member of the Select Board and the Permanent Buildings Committee, the wastewater treatment plant comprises multiple structures. “We have to add technology to meet the new effluent requirements that we can’t meet, and we have to change and upgrade some of the equipment that currently exists to be compatible with the new equipment,” he said. Portions of the existing wastewater treatment facility will get electrical upgrades.

“I don’t want to characterize this as ‘we’re knocking the whole thing down and building a new plant,’ since we’re keeping it online throughout and constructing upgrades to meet new requirements,” he added.

About one-third of the facility, when completed, will be all-new, Maxymillian said, while one-third will be mostly the same and the final third will be adapted to current treatment requirements.

“The wastewater treatment plant has reached the end of its expected useful life,” Ketchen said. “However, the town had delayed work on a substantial upgrade while awaiting the new EPA performance standards.”

Since the permit has been issued, partial design work has been accomplished. The combination of town and federal funds would allow design work to be completed, and a general contractor can be selected through bidding. Construction could begin in 2023.

Public safety complex

The facility has been in the active planning stages since 2018.

The existing police station in the basement of the 1901 Town Hall is afflicted by code issues, including state Department of Public Health violations, according to a September 2019 consultant’s report.

Built in 1909, the firehouse is so outmoded that it requires altering every new truck so it fits into the tight space, and the same applies to ambulances. The building has code violations, lack of accessibility, structural challenges, an outmoded fire detection system and generator, as well as a lack of insulation.

LENOXSAFETY-8.jpg (copy) (copy)

Clearance for modern firetrucks is measured in inches at the Lenox Fire Department. The town has proposed building a modern public safety complex for its emergency services departments for $25 million. Town residents will vote on the proposal Thursday during a special town meeting.

The town previously identified a potential first-choice site at the Hashim family’s Brushwood Farm property adjacent to the Courtyard by Marriott and across from the Lenox Commons on Pittsfield Road (Routes 7 and 20), but it turned out to be unworkable.

“The Saw Mill property is as close as we are going to get, having eliminated many other locations for not being suitable,” Police Chief Stephen E. O’ Brien told The Eagle on Monday. “The public safety building gets us out of the basement of a 100-year-old building and will create more space for the Police Department as we continue to expand,” he said.

The complex will also have ample space and modern facilities for the Fire Department and Lenox Ambulance.

In 2021, Town Meeting voters approved $2.1 million for design and engineering work. While approval of project costs on Thursday would allow bidding and construction to begin in fall 2023 with potential completion by mid-2025, the fiscal impact on taxpayers for debt service on the bonds will not take effect until fiscal year 2027 or later.

The Saw Mill Brook land had been considered for a mixed-income rental housing project, but the proposal failed to win the required two-thirds supermajority at the May 2019 annual town meeting.

To repurpose the town land, voters also would need to approve by a two-thirds majority a transfer from free cash reserves back to the Community Preservation Committee of $631,000, since the site had been designated for housing.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com.

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