The Fire District is hoping for approval on Tuesday to buy land as the first step to building a new fire station.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — This spring's annual meeting of the Williamstown Fire District featured an unusually high turnout: a whopping 42 voters in a town with about 4,600 registered voters.
That is less than 1 percent turnout, but it was still slightly better than generally turns out to vote on matters of the Fire District, which many residents do not realize operates independent of the rest of town government.
Expect a higher turnout on Tuesday at 7 p.m. when the Fire District holds a special meeting at Williamstown Elementary School.
There is just one article on the agenda, and it requires a two-thirds vote of those in attendance to authorize the district to acquire the 3.7-acre parcel known as the Lehovic property on Main Street (Route 2) just east of the former Agway property.
The announced purchase price for the property is $575,000, and the district is asking voters to OK that expenditure plus the removal of the existing structures (rental housing) and site work in preparation for construction of a new fire station on the site.
Some in town have criticized that request, suggesting that the Fire District slow down its efforts to build a new station and seriously consider a combined police-fire public safety facility.
The district's response has been that it has been developing plans for a new station for years and talking about it publicly — at those very annual meetings and monthly Prudential Committee meetings that have gone largely ignored by voters.
Fire officials maintain that the Lehovic property is ideally located near the village center. It is close to most of the town's population and to the residences and workplaces of its volunteer force.
The district is afraid if it misses out on the chance to finalize its purchase-and-sales agreement on the property there are no good alternatives on the market.
"They're not making any more land," Assistant Chief Robert Briggs noted last week at a meeting of the town's Finance Committee.
Both Fire District officials and detractors of the plan are hoping for and encouraging high voter turnout on Tuesday evening.
"Your attendance is crucial because an article approving the purchase requires the support of 2/3 of voters," the letter reads. "The purchase of this property is necessary for the Fire District to move forward with planning and to ensure the quality of service that Williamstown residents deserve.
"Please attend the meeting to show your support for the future of your fire department."
The letter notes that the $575,000 land purchase would result in a 9 percent increase in the Fire District portion of residents' combined tax bill over the next two years.
The Fire District's $471,000 budget for 2014 is relatively minor compared to the much larger expenditures covered by town taxes: general government ($6.7 million), the elementary school ($5.5 million), the town's share of the Mount Greylock Regional School District ($4.6 million), the Sewer Department ($1 million) and the Water Department ($855,000).
Quoting from the email circulated by Pedercini: "A "yes" vote would increase tax rates by approximately 5 cents per thousand each year for two years. This increase would cover the interest on the loan. Repayment of principal would increase tax rates by a total of 10 cents per thousand for about 6 years. Of note, the district recently decreased tax rates by 12 cents per thousand."
But while the initial increase related to the land purchase may be minor, critics point out that the $575,000 purchase is just step one in a process that will lead to a multimillion construction project. The email from Pedercini does not deny that contention, noting, "This vote is only phase one of a multiyear plan to build a new station that will require future votes and a close involvement between the District and voters."
Fincance Committee member Dan Gendron, an outspoken opponent of the Fire District's efforts to move forward with a new station, says the district needs to be more cooperative and less unilateral. Gendron notes that the town has two other large capital projects on the horizon — a new police station and a new Mount Greylock junior-senior high school — and either or both could fall victim to "tax fatigue" if the fire station project goes through.
At that same meeting, Fin Comm member Andrew Hogeland, who serves with Gendron and the chairman of the Prudential Committee on a joint Town-Fire District Public Safety Building Study Committee, suggested a compromise.
Hogeland proposed an amendment to the warrant article at Tuesday's meeting that would allow the Fire District to buy the Lehovic property but not make any improvements on it. That way, if the town decides the land could accommodate a combined police-fire station it could move forward on the site, or if another option is found for a joint facility, the Lehovic lot could be put back on the market.
Hogeland and Gendron repeatedly have argued that a combined public safety building could save money over building separate police and fire stations and two sites.
Voter check-in for the Fire District Special District Meeting is at 6:30 p.m. at Williamstown Elementary School. All registered voters in town are eligible to participate.