Williamstown Voters Reject Fire Station Land Purchase
|Voters in favor of the Fire District's acquisition of the Lehovic property, including Fire Chief Craig Pedercini at right, hold their ballots aloft at Tuesday's meeting.|
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Fire District officials Tuesday night fell 13 votes shy of gaining voter approval for the purchase of a 3.7-acre Main Street parcel where the district hoped to build a new fire house.
In fact, the land purchase's two most outspoken critics each took pains to say they believe the town needs a new fire station.
But Charles Fox and Dan Gendron, both members of the town's Finance Committee, argued that the town needs to take a coordinated approach to several different capital projects on Williamstown's agenda.
"Like you, I take my public calling seriously," Gendron told the firefighters in the room. "No, my role is not as dangerous, but I do serve the community, as you do.
"I'm looking at any and all expenditures and the ability to pay for those expenditures from taxing the populace of Williamstown."
Gendron said in his estimation, a new fire station, a new police station, a new high school and major renovations to the public library (a project that already has been scaled back considerably since it was announced several years ago) would cost in the neighborhood of $30 million.
"How can we pay for this without affecting the demographics of the town?" Gendron asked rhetorically. "I see a smaller scale project would work for both the town and the district."
Likewise, Fox said he and others in town had urged the Prudential Committee to slow down its efforts to acquire the land and build a new station.
"We are all concerned about all of these possibilities," Fox said. "And I believe in a new fire station. ... And I believe in a new police station. ... The high school has demonstrated we desperately need a new high school. It would be inappropriate and unwise to embark on a course of action that doesn't take [all the projects] into account."
Hugh Daley rose to the microphone to ask why voters were being asked to approve "phase one" of the fire station project — land acquisition — without hard numbers to consider for the total cost of the project.
|Local realtor Paul Harsch spoke in favor of the land purchase.|
"I would have preferred for the district to come to us with a single budget ... so we know if we're talking about $5 million or $15 million. We have no idea."
The land deal was not without its supporters on the floor of the meeting. Two voters rose to say essentially that opponents were being overly pessimistic about the funding obstacles — particularly in the face of the pressing need for a new station.
"The community requires a new high school, the community requires a new fire station, the community requires a new police station, the community requires affordable housing," Paul Harsch said. "[Firefighters'] task is the preservation of our lives and our property.
"Who is to say which of these vital community priorities is more vital than the other. There is no way to put one above the other, and attempting to do so leads to negative and divisive thinking."
Harsch, a local realtor, argued that the site of the current fire house could be returned to the tax rolls and increase the town's tax base, whereas the Lehovic property generates relatively little in the way of property taxes. And Harsch said the town's two largest non-profits — Williams College and the Clark Art Institute — likely would be part of the funding solution when it came time to build a station that would serve their needs along with town residents.
Donald Dubendorf said the issue before the voters was not whether the Fire District should consider a joint public safety building with the Police Department — as some have argued. The issue, Dubendorf said, was whether the district would be allowed to take advantage of the opportunity to move forward.
"It would be a mistake to say we make no moves whatsoever because we don't know the end game," Dubendorf said.
"Not too long ago, we built this [elementary school] building. And in doing so, what we said is, 'We care.' I think tonight, we ought to start caring [about the firefighters]."
For the elected body in charge of governing the Fire District, it is back to square one, Notsley said.
"At this point, I don't know," he said. "I really don't. We can go back to the drawing board. At this point of the game, I just don't know what the options may or may not be."
There was consolation in the fact that the majority of voters supported buying the land for a new station.
"It showed the support, certainly, for the Fire Department and the firemen," Notsley said. "A two-thirds vote is a tough vote to get, there's no question about that. And we understood that."
"But there was this email campaign that was kind of negative and it was more or less, 'We want our school and to hell with the PD and the Fire Department.' I'm kind of sad about that. ... But, hey, we gave it a shot. We gave it a good shot. Just not good enough."
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