Freedom – December 1, 2010 – Freedom Selectmen plan to ask residents for new facilities for the police and the fire departments instead of rehabbing the town office. The board is likely to present a plan to voters next March.
The board’s announcement on Monday is somewhat surprising because for about the last six months a town committee has been studying the best possible uses for the town office. Its findings show that with some money and work the building, the former school house on Old Portland Road could be made more complaint. Cost estimates ranged between $250,000 and $600,000.
The Old School House Future Use Committee’s findings were based in part on a report by Bergeron Technical Services of North Conway, which said the town office “is not that bad.”
The committee’s preferred option was to create an office complex on Old Portland Road by fixing the town office and then purchasing or leasing nearby buildings. The cost was estimated at $250,000.
After digesting the committee’s report for a couple of weeks, selectmen decided the town office’s issues can wait. Instead, selectmen are planning to address liability concerns with the fire and police departments, which they deem to be more serious. They are in discussions with architect Eric Palson about doing a design. Palson, of Sheer, McCrystal and Palson of New London, was the architect who designed the proposed $2.7 million safety complex and a $454,000 attached town office, which voters shot down in March.
“There is no good alternative,” said selectmen’s chair Les Babb, regarding the town office building. “I hate to throw anyone under the bus, everyone has real need. I feel the greatest possibility of legal ramifications comes from the police department.”
Babb said anything that’s proposed next year will have a lower price tag than what was proposed in March. Officials are trying to find a more appropriate cost for the new building and then they will “walk backwards from that,” said Babb.
Selectmen are looking at asking voters for $1 million to $2 million for the fire and police facilities. The plan for the fire station and the police station is in its infancy, but it could include purchasing some land from an abutter to the fire station, which is located on Village Road.
“The less you put in the paper the better because nothing is done yet,” Babb told a reporter.
Selectmen won’t put the architect job out to bid because Palson is already familiar with the town and also because they felt he did a good job last year, said Babb and selectman Scott Cunningham.
Resident Bob Smart urged selectmen to make the issues with the town facilities evident to residents. He said the board needs to explain how urgent these projects are. In response, Babb said the selectmen did explain all those things about six years ago, but he should have done a better job repeating the message to new residents who have moved in since then.
“We explained we have sex offenders still walking around the town of Freedom because certain things were done within that facility,” said Babb of the police station. “Certain statements were taken that were thrown out and that left sex offenders on the street. We have explained all that and I have not repeated myself a lot. That is my fault.”
When a reporter asked for more detail about the sex offenders, Babb said he didn’t want to publicize the town’s vulnerabilities. However, he said liabilities with the police station would be discussed in more detail before town meeting in March.
The police department, located on the upper floor of the town office, doesn’t have space for evidence and weapons storage, proper interrogations and booking. The police department has little privacy, and residents have been known to interrupt sensitive interviews by knocking on the door.
The fire station is too small to store the town’s fire equipment properly. The fire station also has poor air quality because it lacks an exhaust system. At this year’s town meeting, fire chief Gene Doe held up a piece of insulation that turned black from diesel smoke.
Issues at the town office include improving the means of egress, adding fire proof document storage, and creating more work space for employees. The Old School House Future Use Committee estimated meeting those challenges could cost $500,000 to $600,000.
Babb said selectmen would look at putting a fire-proof storage room on the back of a new fire and police building. Taking the police station out of the town office would also free up some storage space, officials said.
“It would be catastrophic to lose some of the historical records,” said Babb.
Town administrator Karen Hatch said selectmen shouldn’t forget the town office. Further, she said the town shouldn’t take shortcuts on safety to save money.
“If we’re going to spend money, we need to do it right,” said Hatch.
Committee chair John Shipman said he didn’t mind that nothing would be done on the town office next year.
“The building is old; it’s going to be a challenge to upgrade it, no question,” said Shipman. “My personal opinion is we need to do something with the police and maybe with the fire department.”
Is there anyone on the board with planning experience? It appears the new study and recommendation is consistent with the expressed desire of the community to keep the town office where it is and build a consolidated police and fire facility where the current fire station is. Why don’t the selectmen now move to create a master plan to do that with a staged approach to funding it over time that taxpayers can understand? It sounds like once again they are focused on just one piece of the puzzle. The impression, right or wrong, is that the board is still not happy with the community’s desire to keep the town office in the village and has put a decision about it on hold so as to have another shot later at convincing us that it should be somewhere other than where it is, at the center of the village. We’ve gone from buying land to consolidate everything to looking at options for the town office to now focusing just on fire and police department needs. This isn’t town planning. It’s ridiculous!
Have any of the town officials given any thought to “regionalizing” with some of the surrounding communities? Taxes went up again this year, and with the expenditures that any new buildings would require they would only continue to escalate. I would suggest that if Freedom were to regionalize we could also save $$s by sharing public safety hierarchy with neighboring towns.