October 26, 2016TILTON — An audience of 50 people attended a public hearing held by the Tilton-Northfield Fire District Commissioners on Oct. 19. While some residents of the two communities did not support plans for a new fire station, others supported the work of the appointed Space Needs Committee Committee with praise and encouragement for all they have done since district voters approved the formation of the committee back in March.
Comprised of three Northfield residents, three Tilton residents and one fire district commissioner, the committee's charge was to study the needs of the jointly owned fire and EMS department and determine how they might best be addressed.
The main fire station for Tilton-Northfield Fire & EMS is located on Center Street in Tilton, where it has been for almost 150 years. Approximately 30 years ago the district also built an additional substation/storage facility on Park Street in Northfield to boost their services and house necessary equipment that could not be stored at the Center Street station.
Both buildings have virtually no property other than the footprint of their foundation, are small for today's needs and, the main station in Tilton is a narrow, two-story structure with offices on the second floor that offer no handicap access.
The stairs are a hazard to the public doing business at the fire station and Chief Michael Sitar said there have even been a few minor injuries to his staff when they've headed downstairs to respond to an emergency call.
Tim Sattler, chair of the Space Needs committee, said at last week's hearing that his group, after many weeks and months of investigation, was prepared to bring forth three options for the district's consideration.
Option 1 would be to build a new main fire station somewhere within Tilton's Village District, while maintaining the Park Street station in Northfield as garage space for additional equipment and vehicles.
"Pros" for that option, estimated by the committee to cost the district $3,910,000, are that it would still provide the district with one manned station at all times, have a central location and maintain current response times. The "cons," as the committee determined, were that the district would also have to consider the cost of land for such a move.
Option 2A looks to build a new main fire station east of Exit 20 in Tilton where response times would be improved. It also would call for the upgrade of Park Street station to a manned substation. While that would improve response times in all areas of the district, especially east of the busy Route 3 corridor beyond Exit 20, it also had it's own "cons," which again included land and site costs for a new station, and the increased operational costs for two manned stations.
Lastly, Option 2B proposed upgrading Park Street station to make it the main station for the department with the creation of a second manned substation east of Exit 20. That option, the committee said, would also provide two manned stations in the district, and improve response times. However, it too would mean additional land/site preparation costs and an operations increase for the two manned stations.
Sattler said that as they worked out costs for the options (excluding the still unknown actual property and site expenses), they found that they were all three within $180,000 of each other.
Option 1 is estimated to be $3,910,000; Option 2A is believed to be approximately $3.8 million, while 2B is the more costly at $4,090,000. Basing it all under the rounded figure of a $4 million bond, either of the options would result in an annual payment of $253,000 from the district.
Operating costs among the options differs however and could have a slightly greater impact on taxes.
Option 1 would see operations costs rise by $23,000 in the district for a total annual cost of $276,000. If approved, that scenario would potentially cost both Tilton and Northfield taxpayers pay an additional 35 cents per $1,000 in taxes based on their property evaluation.
Options 2A and 2B would both include the same $253,000 bond payment but operating costs in those instances would rise to $668,000 and taxes would mean an increase of $0.84/1,000 in Tilton and 85 cents/$1,000 in Northfield.
Initial responses from district voters living in Northfield were "No, no and no" to each of the options.
"We're not taking on bills our kids can't pay," said former fire commissioner Kevin Waldron.
Some inquired about regionalization options and while Fire Commissioner Dennis Manning said Sanbornton had expressed an interest in such a measure, it was not "on the table" at this time.
Others advised the commission and the Space Needs committee that while they recognize the need, they are looking for a "no frills" fire station and hoped that no extra expenses were put into any of the proposals.
Manning said that nothing "frivolous" is in the plans but, looking at potential needs of the district over the next 50 years, there were a few small meeting rooms and space for an emergency operations center included.
Sattler reminded the gathering that commissioners and committee members are all part of the community and tax payers as well.
"We're not out there to build the Taj Mahal but we do want good quality. The station we have now in Tilton has lasted us 150 years and we want any new facility to meet our needs well into the future, too," Sattler said.
There was also some protest over why the Park Street station couldn't simply be expanded on to meet all the district's needs. That, a few said, was the idea behind its construction 30 years ago.
Manning asked people to keep in mind that that structure is basically just a garage facility with little to no room to expand.
"Those were promises made 30 years ago. Things have evolved since then…there's not the room (land) we thought there was back then," he said.
Retired fire chief Bob Petrin of Northfield said he liked the fact that response times, call volumes and all other factors were included in the options presented by the committee this time around. He conceded that the Center Street station was in "woefully poor" condition and asked the committee to keep up the good work in seeking a solution.
He was not alone as the meeting drew to a close on a more positive note from the public. While some had suggestions on how to make the Center Street location more accessible, they found the committee had already ruled those possibilities out due to property abutters, safety hazards and other mitigating factors.
Mike Elkins of Northfield said he liked the option of a station east of Exit 20. While $4 million seemed like a lot of money, he said it was time to be realistic, especially since the inevitable costs will only continue to increase in time.
"We can spend a little now or a whole lot later. Thanks you all for what you're doing," he told the panel.
The committee will take last week's objections and suggestions into consideration as they continue their work. They will then present possible revisions and/or further details that could even include proposed land acquisition estimates at subsequent hearings to be held between now and the March district meeting.