Facility & Infrastructure Needs Presented to Master Plan Implementation Comm.
Mar 30, 2020 06:00AM
By Pamela Johnson
written by Amy Bartelloni , Contributing Writer
Public facilities and infrastructure were the topic of discussion at the March 11th meeting of the Master Plan Committee. The Committee reviewed the many needs of the library, the Fire Department, and the DPW.
Library Director Bernadette Rivard presented the needs of the library, which included painting and siding the building exterior (some of which will be done by BVT in the fall), replacing the aging HVAC system, remodeling the bathroom, a patio or outdoor space, a generator, connection to town sewer, and possible doors to the children’s room.
Fire Department needs, presented by Chief Steven Gentile and Deputy Fire Chief Mark Poirier, included exterior renovations of the south station (including roof and gutters). Needs at the central station, which was built to house a staff of eleven and now has a staff of thirty, include a larger locker room, bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom space. They also need additional space in the apparatus bay and floors, as well as repairs to the station’s ramp and a new, larger generator to cover the whole building.
The committee discussed what the town wants the Fire Department to look like in the future. Station one in north Bellingham is currently used for storage and a community space. The Committee discussed the best way forward, possibly not spending money to bring Station 1 up to code but repairing the central and south stations and fully manning them with eight new positions. They discussed the possibility of a new station, and where in town that would be located since Blackstone Street is not an ideal location. With the south station open, the Chief would like to see a new building closer to the north end of town. Understanding the town issues, they haven’t done a cost analysis for the facility needs but are doing the necessary work piecemeal and using their own labor, though some of the upcoming work they can’t do on their own. It’s a strategy that was frustrating to some Committee members.
“As a town, we can’t continue to live with just 2 1/2 %,” Committee member and Selectman Don Martinis said, referring to the needs of the Police and Fire departments, which have been increasing over the years. “The Community can’t expect us to provide them with the services they need without pitching in with an override.” He further clarified that an override has to be in incremental hits over time, which should smooth itself out, and he suggested asking new developers in town for money to help our public services, an avenue that Town Planner Jim Kupfer is always pursuing.
“We don’t have a choice,” agreed Committee member Kelly Grant, recognizing the needs of all town services.
“I certainly don’t discount the need at all,” Town CFO Mary MacKinnon added, “but we’re faced right now with a very real budgetary issue; if this override does not pass, we’re looking at reductions in force in the school department and perhaps affecting town services as well in order to share the burden of that reduction.”
“The town of Bellingham needs to understand that they need to start paying the proper amount of taxes per year,” Chief Gentile said. “It’s amazing that we’re getting done what we’re getting done,” he said, praising his employees.
The needs of DPW (Department of Public Works) facilities and infrastructure (which Director Don DiMartino noted were the same as in 2010) include storage space for equipment that currently sits outside. He estimates that they need at least a building the size they have now and need to keep the one they have now and fix it. Although they haven’t done a needs assessment study for this project, years ago that number was in the $8-10 million range.
They also need office space, improved vehicle repair facilities (mechanic work bays), vehicle wash area (bay), stormwater collection and treatment for the runoff for their site, and removal of the abandoned gasoline storage tank and reconstruction of the concrete pad in the diesel fueling area. The existing roof needs to be redone, and while they planned to re-skin (put new tiles over old), this may not be possible because of the weight issues.
Although there is room behind the DPW up the hill on Blackstone Street for supplemental storage, there isn’t much room for buildout at the current building.
“And the big thing is, we need to give you a new facility,” Martinis said. “This town needs to support providing you with a new facility.” While DiMartino agreed, he also noted that they need $25-$50 million for roads. The Chief noted that if there were a fire in the current facility, they’d lose their whole fleet. “If you don’t have any building, you can’t repair the roads,” Grant offered, before the discussion moved to the DPW’s infrastructure needs, which are many.
A new DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) regulation sets a drinking water standard for the chemical known as PFAS, and the town has to comply. While not all of the regulatory requirements are set in stone yet, there is a good possibility that the town will require a treatment plant in the range of $4.5 million, with additional yearly operating costs. The regulations are set by the state, and although the federal government set a 70 parts per million regulation, a number we would be safe with, Massachusetts is looking at a standard of 20 parts per million, which would require treatment. He told the Committee they will know more by the summer. The news isn’t any better for roads, which will require $25-$50 million according to a 2017 analysis, a number that varied depending on how many improvements are done, as well as $5 million for bridge and culvert repair and more staffing.
Town CFO Mary MacKinnon reviewed ways that the town could raise funds for much-needed repairs to the fire station and DPW, including a capital or debt exclusion that is outside the 2 1/2 levy. Such an exclusion would need to be used for capital projects, and it’s a tactic that other towns use often. The capital or debt exclusions mean that the tax levy is increased for the length of the project, then goes back, and you have to have collateral – or something to leverage your debt. You cannot borrow money for the cost of labor. An override would be to fund operational expenses like personnel, which the school is requesting.
“It’s a very common tool and technique that many towns use, and Bellingham has never used it. What you guys have done time and time again is you’ve undertaken all these capital projects, building of a new police station, renovating schools, within your levy capacity, and that’s why you’re feeling a good deal of pinch.” Future conversations on the topic will be held with department heads, then would move to the Capital Planning and Finance committees, which would look at appropriate funding sources. Any capital or debt exclusions would have to be approved at town meeting.
The Fire Chief expressed concerns about how the town ended up in this position. “Do you have any opinion on how we ended up where we are?” he asked MacKinnon. “Every budget, we have departments crying for help. We have infrastructure that can’t be paid for. We have schools that can’t be run without overrides. How did we end up here?”
Although Don Martinis placed responsibility on former conservative boards, MacKinnon reassured the Committee that this is a problem every community struggles with, though we feel the pinch because our decisions are local. “You’re not unique in these challenges,” she said. “A lot of communities have aging infrastructure, and they face these challenges.” She did mention, however, that the community has had a permanent constraint in taxes, because what we generate is on the relatively low side. “The town of Bellingham is in the bottom 20% in terms of tax burden on the average single-family home. When you live within those constraints, you’re not able to do all the projects that you know you need to do.”
At the Committee’s next meeting, they will be reviewing goals for the facilities and infrastructure chapters and looking at the open space and recreation chapter. It will be held in the downstairs conference room at the Municipal Center, on April 8th at 7:30 p.m. Any questions can be directed to Town Planner Jim Kupfer at 508-657-2893.