Finance Committee member Andrew Hogeland suggested tying a proposed feasibility study for a combined police and fire station to the Fire District's vote on a land purchase.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — For the second time this year, Andrew Hogeland has shown himself to be Williamstown's version of Henry Clay.
In the spring, it was Hogeland who advocated the "timeout" that staved off a series of contentious Special Town Meeting votes on possibly developing land in conservation.
On Tuesday night, Hogeland floated the idea of an amendment on a contentious question warned for a special meeting of the Williamstown Fire District scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 15.
The Prudential Committee, the elected body that administers the Fire District, is asking voters to approve the purchase of the so-called Lehovic property on Main Street, where the district plans to build a new fire station.
The Prudential Committee's proposal is not without detractors, and Tuesday's meeting of the Finance Committee turned featured a heated exchange between a committee member and the district's assistant fire chief.
"My concern is if we decide not to buy Lehovic, there's no Plan B," Hogeland said after his fellow Fin Comm member Daniel Gendron advocated a "No" vote on the land acquisition. "I don't think it's an irreversible decision to buy Lehovic. If you buy it, and it doesn't work out, you sell it back. ... If the vote is not to buy the property, you haven't slowed [the Fire District] down; you've stopped them.
"It would be attractive to change the warrant on the floor [of the Oct. 15 meeting] and allow them the $575,000 to buy the property, and then next thing is a feasability study."
The warrant as currently drafted
authorizes the district acquire the Lehovic property, clear the existing structures and prepare it for building a fire house.
Gendron has vehemently argued that the Fire District — a separate taxing authority apart from town government — should work with the town to consider building a combined fire and police station. And the feasability study mentioned by Hogeland would allow the district and town to explore that possibility.
Hogeland, an attorney, channeled the spirit of the Great Compromiser, Clay, who helped the nation avoid civil war for a generation over the issue of slavery.
Granted, the stakes pale in comparison, but the discussion in town was decidedly uncivil last spring when the issue was the Lowry property and Tuesday night when the issue was Lehovic and, more generally, whether the town should slow down before embarking on three major building projects: a fire station, a police station and a new Mount Greylock Regional High School.
"If people have any questions, we have a lot of information we just put on our website to rebut some of the mudslinging emails going around, frankly, from members of this board," Assistant Fire Chief Robert Briggs said. "We just want to tell the truth."
Assistant Fire Chief Robert Briggs, left, and Finance Committee Daniel Gendron argued over the need for a new fire station.
Gendron took exception to the characterization of his emails but did not deny sending them.
"You always know what Dan Gendron thinks because Dan Gendron puts it in writing," he said.
Briggs, meanwhile, defended the plans of the Fire District, which has been working for years to find an alternative to its current aging, inadequate station on Water Street. And he challenged the notion that a new police station is as badly needed as a new fire house.
"The police department, their 20,000 calls is probably 15,000 for speeding tickets," Briggs said.
Gendron strongly objected to that suggestion.
"When you minimize 15,000 calls and you have no idea whether it's speeding tickets or anything else — when we have child rapes and the victims and perpetrators are in the same room [in the current police station], you're never going to convince me," Gendron said.
Gendron at one point in the meeting said he did not believe the town needed a new fire station at a cost of $9 million (the high-end figure cited by Fire District officials, who have not identified an actual price estimate).
Firefighter Peter Niemeyer challenged Gendron for that remark.
"You didn't ask [Mount Greylock Superintendent Rose] Ellis if she needed a new school or how much she was going to spend," Niemeyer said. "You didn't state on television that you didn't think we needed [a school]. ... You just said you don't think we need a $9 million fire station."
Gendron later backed off that comment, saying that perhaps after study the town might find it needs to spend $10 million on a fire station. Or it might need to spend less, he said.
Gendron argued once again that taxpayers might realize savings from the construction of a combined public safety building that serves both the police and fire departments. It was that idea this spring that prompted the Selectmen to organize a Public Safety Building Study Committee, on which Hogeland and Gendron serve with, among others, John Notsley, the chairman of the Prudential Committee.
"John Notsley is a great guy, but he's told me from Day 1 ... they are not interested in slowing their project down," Gendron said. "They're not interested in trying to coordinate this huge financial picture. It's almost as if: What's the point of having the discussion?"
Gendron said that in his estimation, voters think a new high school and a new police station are higher priorities than a new fire station — an assertion that Briggs challenged.
"The bottom line is it's the police station that must be done," Gendron said. "Maybe there's a way to combine the [police and fire stations] and save resources. You people have not been willing to discuss it. You've not come to the table. ... It's your way or the highway, and it's wrong. It's not the way to have a discussion."
Selectwoman Jane Patton, who chairs the Public Safety Building Study Committee, said she understands both Gendron's and the Prudential Committee's points of view and believes a compromise is possible.
"I think [the Fire District] is moving forward in good faith," Patton said. "I think the Fire Department is well along in this process, at least from their perspective ... and to pull way back when they feel they had forward momentum — I can understand their perspective.
"I do know when I toured the police station, I was amazed. ... I see the need. I see that need at the high school. We just have to find a way to hone in on how to make ... them work and move apace instead of it has to be this thing or this thing or this thing. If folks can do that, maybe we'll get some forward motion."
Patton took advantage of Tuesday's meeting to tell the audience on the town's community access television station to show up in person for next Tuesday's Special Fire District Meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. at Williamstown Elementary School.
"If this matters to you, you have to go to the meeting and you have to vote," Patton said. "That, I think, is the biggest message we can get out right now. You can't sit back and be angry about how the vote went if you didn't participate."