GROTON -- At what was described as the first of several meetings on the subject, planners learned last week that there were still many outstanding questions that will need to be addressed before a proposed new Center Fire Station can claim the support of the Finance Committee.
"The fire station issue is a very important and very expensive proposition," said FinCom Chairman Jay Prager by way of opening discussions between his committee and proponents of the fire station that included Town Manager Mark Haddad and Fire Chief Joseph Bosselait.
Prager warned Haddad and Bosselait as well as others in attendance at the Sept. 6 meeting that more meetings would be held on the subject going into November, ahead of next spring's Town Meeting when the question whether or not to raise the $7.5 million needed to build the new station is expected to be presented to residents for final approval.
That question however, could come even earlier than the spring Town Meeting. Eager to begin the project once plans have been vetted by the town's various land use boards, proponents said that a Special Town Meeting could be called as early as January in order to begin construction in the spring.
But planners could have been placing the cart before the horse as they seemed far from convincing members of the Finance Committee that designs for the new fire station could not be pared back or even rejected completely.
As proposed, the new Center Fire Station is to include a four-bay garage and three-story administration complex with offices on the first floor; fitness room, dormitory, kitchen, dining room, and day room planned for the second floor; and HVAC and other mechanical equipment to be placed in the third floor "attic" space.
Cost of the 2.7 acre parcel, which is located along one of the town's most scenic drives, has been set at $350,000 with a final price tag for the fire station building itself estimated at $7.5 million.
Following a brief presentation on designs for the new station as they currently stood, Prager opened last week's discussion wondering aloud about the need for such bells and whistles as training facilities and bunk rooms.
"These are normal attributes (for a modern fire station)," replied Bosselait. "We are going to grow."
Bosselait was backed up by Lt. Susan Daly who added that more full-time firemen would need to be hired in the future as volunteers dwindled.
The question of call firemen versus full-timers was a key element of last week's discussion, with Fire Department officials insisting that despite efforts to get the word out, recruitment of volunteers has proven difficult due to the demands of modern living and excessive and time-consuming training required by the state.
Haddad assured committee members that the Center Fire Station Building Committee will supply all the information needed to support the parts of the plan that anticipate a growing number of full-time firemen in the future.
FinCom member Robert Hargraves then raised the question of the expense involved in building a full-scale fire station, noting that by keeping costs within the town's existing budget as Haddad plans, there would be very little "cushion" left for other spending items.
The town manager however, insisted that the scheme would work.
"We didn't have any cushion until three years ago," pointed out fellow committee member and fire station supporter Steve Webber.
Nevertheless, Prager reminded those in attendance that there were many expensive items coming up in the next few years that the town would have to pay for.
"It's not that we don't need a new fire station," said Prager, "it's why do we need this fire station?"
In reply, Haddad said that residents at Town Meeting voted to approve spending $800,000 for design plans based on the Farmers Row site that included an 18,500 square foot station.
It was the responsibility of the FinCom to make sure taxpayers received their money's worth, replied Prager, whose interpretation of that town meeting vote was that residents "basically said we want to build a fire station" but not necessarily the one designers have presented.
Another concern raised by committee members was the uncertain state of the economy in future months, something Haddad said planners were cognizant of.
"We're thinking about all this stuff," said Haddad emphasizing that proponents have taken the long view on the issue even to the point of warning school officials that the town has set spending priorities with the cost of a new fire station high among them.
"Can this be made smaller?" asked Hargraves, bringing up, not for the first time, the fact that the new Lost Lake sub-station seemed underutilized. "There are people in this town who feel that no one's looking out for them in terms of taxes. Can this (station) be condensed? I just don't know."
Existing Fire Department facilities are currently doing the job expected of them, said Prager. They were fulfilling the program. There must be a balance between what the existing facilities are doing and the potential of what a new 18,500 square foot state of the art fire station can do.
Webber replied that the new station's design was based on the needs of the Fire Department's program and not on any arbitrary choice of square footage.
"We're going to continue to refine the numbers," said Haddad of the Building Committee's effort to trim the cost of the new station. He warned however, that the time was approaching when a final design plan would be reached.
Expecting discussions to continue over the course of several more meetings, Prager concluded last week's session by assuring planners that his committee did not intend to be obstructive.
"We're here not to stand in your way (but to represent the interests of residents)," Prager said.