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Plymouth Public Safety facilities will wait

Plymouth Select Board Chairperson Valerie Scarborough presents plaques honoring the distinguished service of outgoing select board members Daryl Browne and Wallace “Butch” Cushing during the Annual Plymouth Town Meeting last Wednesday evening. (Marcia Morris) (click for larger version)
March 16, 2011
PLYMOUTH — Two proposals to build separate, new Police and Fire Department facilities in Plymouth both narrowly failed to achieve the two thirds supermajority needed to pass a bond at the 2011 Annual Town Meeting, held in the Plymouth Elementary School Gymnasium last Wednesday night.

Article 2 on the Annual Warrant asked voters to raise and appropriate the sum of $3,589,634 for construction of a new, two-story Fire Station on the site of the existing facility at 42 Highland St. It was defeated by a ballot vote of 201 in favor (63 percent), and 117 opposed.

Article 3 asked voters to raise and appropriate the sum of $3,304,092 for the construction of a new, one-story Police Department building on town-owned land immediately adjacent to the existing facility. It was also defeated, by a ballot vote of 170 in favor (62 percent), and 103 opposed.

A proposal to construct a combined Public Safety complex on town-owned land at the site of the existing Police Department was narrowly defeated at last year's Annual Town Meeting.

Discussion of the two Public Safety articles took up the lion's share of the meeting, which ran well into the evening and also featured several other weighty topics.

There was a widespread expression of acknowledgement of the "desperate" need for the new police and fire facilities in Plymouth, given numerous inadequacies of existing conditions which have been well documented on video on the town Web site and in a brochure distributed by the Public Safety Building Committee. New facilities to replace the aging and outdated police and fire buildings have been in the planning stages for many years.

Plymouth resident Jack Scarborough asked voters to keep in mind the impact that "atrocious" working conditions have on the morale of the town's first responders.

For the Public Safety Building Committee, Chairman Tim Keefe said that members had worked tirelessly since last May to evaluate as many as 30 potential building sites, and to come up with a "cost effective" plan that would take no property off the tax roles.

"This is the right time for this project," said Keefe. "We have analyzed the issue in depth and the consensus on the committee is strong. We believe that these are exceptional plans that meet the short and long term needs of the town."

"I think we can say that this issue has been studied to death over the years," said former Select Board member John Tucker in support of the proposals. "The existing buildings are way past their prime. It's time to move on this."

However, despite general consensus in support of the two proposals on the Board of Selectmen and Public Safety Building Committee, ultimately, an insufficient number of voters were persuaded that this is the year to build both projects, given current economic uncertainties.

Plymouth resident Bill Houle said that he endorsed both proposals as "right on the mark" in terms of meeting objectives, but he questioned whether the town could afford them both at this time. In addition, he strongly suggested that an agreement with Plymouth State University to participate in the funding of the two facilities should be negotiated before Plymouth residents are asked to foot the entire bill for the public safety buildings.

In addition, a number of residents, including, most notably, Public Safety Building Committee member Dick Piper, questioned some of the costs and design aspects of the projects and suggested that there was more work to be done refining the plans before they are approved.

Piper said he thought the project should have been put out to bid in a design/build mode before bringing the total cost to the voters at Town Meeting.

But Select Board members Ray Gosney and Butch Cushing explained that the board was hesitant to incur the substantial costs of design required for going out to bid on the project before it was approved at Town Meeting. Instead, they said the board had decided to adopt a construction management approach that would entail bidding the project out aggressively once the project has been approved.

But some voters, like Peter Bolton, expressed doubt that the resultant savings would then be passed on to the taxpayers.

The issue will likely return to the voters in some form at next year's Town Meeting.

Article 8

Voters overwhelmingly approved petitioned Article 8, to see if the town will request that Plymouth State University limit enrollments in the coming years. The article specifically asked PSU to "implement the recommendations of the 2003 Meeting Plymouth's Housing Needs report and stop expanding enrollments until the University can supply adequate housing to absorb a portion of its off campus population back onto campus." The measure is advisory to the Plymouth Select Board.

According to proponent Doug McLane, the intent of the article is to communicate Plymouth residents' concern about the continued erosion of the character of the single-family residential neighborhoods in downtown Plymouth, adjacent to the campus of PSU, as more and more students move off campus into student apartments.

McLane maintains that widely acknowledged student behavior problems in the off campus apartments are but a symptom of the underlying problem caused by a disproportionate number of student apartments, in comparison to single family homes, in Plymouth's traditional neighborhoods.

The budget

Voters also took up consideration of an amendment, offered by Paul San Soucie, to the recommended FY11/12 Budget, Article 9, which would have reduced the total general governmental expenses by $170,777, from $1,459,291, to $1,288,514, a sum that San Soucie said was intended to represent elimination of the three percent pay increase for town employees.

San Soucie was among many residents who said that many Plymouth residents, particularly the elderly and those on fixed incomes, have not received any pay raises for the last few years and are having considerable difficulty paying the increasing tax rate in Plymouth. They feel that public employees should be making sacrifices to help pay the bills during these difficult economic times.

It was noted that the town's operating budget is a "bottom line" budget, and that the select board would not likely take the reduction out of contractually obligated employee pay raises this year.

When asked, Town Tax Collector Linda Buffington reported that despite dire concerns about residents' increasing inability to pay taxes in these difficult economic times, the actual payment rate for Plymouth was, this year, about the same as it has been historically, about 90 percent, neither up or down.

The budget amendment was ultimately defeated by voice vote.

Voters also passed a "sense of the meeting," Article 6, asking the Board of Selectmen to consider scheduling next year's Town Meeting on the Saturday following Town Election, rather the evening after the "first session." The motion was supported by many residents who are concerned that many voters are unable to turn out for a lengthy meeting on a weekday evening.

Patrice Scott was one such resident who said she believes moving the meeting to the weekend would allow more people to participate and vote at the Town Meeting.

As the clock ticked relentlessly on towards the "witching hour," the advisory article passed decisively on a voice vote.

Martin Lord & Osman
Salmon Press
Alton School
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