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Canton Town Meeting nixes idea of funding Collinsville Fire Station study

By John Fitts 

Staff Writer 

CANTON – Town electors on June 27 nixed the idea of seeking funding for a study that would explore the feasibility of repurposing the current Collinsville fire station. 


Those attending a special town meeting at the high school were asked, “Shall the Town of Canton seek funding to complete a feasibility study and cost estimate for repurposing the existing Collinsville Fire Station, located at 51 River Road, as a storage facility.” A total of 52 voted no, while 37 voted yes. Those voting constituted approximately 1.135 percent of those qualified to do so in town. 


As the town builds a new fire station next door to the current facility, demolition of the existing circa 1972 building has long been the plan. In fact, the November 2021 referendum for the new facility, passed by residents by a count of 2,061 to 834, included a provision to raze the existing station, with the text as follows: “Shall the town of Canton appropriate $5,400,000 for the construction of a new fire station at 51 River Road, including testing and analysis, demolition of existing fire station and site work and related improvements, and authorize the issue of bonds or notes and temporary notes in an aggregate amount not to exceed $5,400,000 to finance said appropriation?”


In recent months, however, a group of citizens has continually pushed for the town to take another look at the current station, particularly for storage needs. 


Other residents pushed back on that idea, noting the original vote, costs for upgrades and maintenance and open space considerations. 


That issue was brought to the Board of Selectmen several times. Additionally, at a more recent meeting, resident Robert Bahre submitted a petition with more than 200 signatures. While the petition was not legally binding, selectmen said the sustained interest in the topic warranted a wider conversation – i.e., the town meeting. 


As of the June 12 meeting at which the Board of Selectmen set the town meeting date, funding was a major issue. That evening, Chief Administrative Officer Robert Skinner told selectmen that the town is working with a $10,000 figure for an engineering study of the building. He noted that the town’s fund balance – or reserves – is currently the only source officials see the money coming from. However, using that fund requires approval from the Board of Finance and a subsequent town meeting.


The uncertainty of how that process would play out, and/or whether another funding source could be found compelled officials to make the town meeting question one of whether selectmen should “seek” the funding or simply allow the demolition to move forward as early as this summer. 


At the town meeting, Skinner reviewed some of the building’s history and the steps that led to the June 2021 referendum, starting in 2016 with a subcommittee that, with the firm of Silver Petrucelli, reviewed fire stations in town, particularly Collinsville. 


Skinner noted that while studies showed rehabilitation of the fire station was more expensive than a new one, he acknowledged that a use like storage was not considered in the lead-up to the referendum. 


“There were a number of shortcomings that they did notice - and it’s in the report – with the existing fire station – including a lack of storage space, lack of apparatus storage space… Also, that there were issues with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) access to the second floor and a number of other things that were going to have to be replaced down the road, including a roof and furnace and other items,” Skinner said. “So, when they added everything up, it just made more sense to build the new building. But I want to make sure that it’s understood, when they looked at it, the study didn’t look at just retrofitting it to be a storage facility – a general storage facility. They looked at what it would cost to renovate the structure to be a new fire station.”


Skinner also talked of cost overruns with the new fire station and noted that some aspects of the project were taken out of the $5.4 million bonding and are being funded by other sources. Those include a generator, furniture, landscaping, demolition, and more. 


He also reviewed the bond attorney’s opinion that the town could change course on demolition, particular since it’s a board of selectmen resolution that went to voters and demolition is no longer within the $5.4 million but is likely to be funded by American Rescue Plan Act monies. Current estimates, he added are $102,000 for demolition, $17,000 for site restoration and $18,000 for contaminants removal – largely asbestos tiles.


Skinner also noted that several town departments or entities, including the Board of Education, police department and potentially other departments, do lack adequate storage space. 


Skinner also detailed some challenges with re-use of the building, such as the stormwater management plan that was designed with the idea of removing the current building, sidewalk issues, the state Department of Transportation’s denial of keeping a second curb cut for the current facility and sidewalk plans.


Engineer Lorri DiBattisto also gave electors a brief overview of the engineering process and how it would involve measurement of visible and non-visible components.


“We do a diagram of the building and identify what those components are and then we rate what those components’ capacity is. So, basically we give you a footprint of what that building has the capability of doing,” DiBattisto said. 


DiBattisto said the process would also involve working with the entities that would need storage and what it would entail before a final report that notes the building’s capacity and future possibilities. 


Numerous residents then spoke.


Kevin Bradley said the town could save an estimated $5 to $8 million “down the road” by reuse of the building. He also spoke to the referendum vote and was one of several speakers who said that voters were not given reuse as an option at the. He also said a team coordinator for Canton Emergency Response Team, which he said also needs storage. 


“I welcome the generation of the information so we can have an actual fully informed vote on this and again potentially save the taxpayers a boatload of money down the road,” Bradley said. 


In her comments, Lisa Franklin compared the process to a merry-go-round, noting that she spoke against “moving backwards” on the referendum at a March Board of Selectmen meeting. 


“At that meeting, I believe the Board of Selectmen agreed with that position and dismissed any proposal to address any future discussion on the issue of that referendum,” Franklin said. “Here we are today to have another town meeting and again it was stated, I believe by Mr. Skinner, that the Board of Selectmen still has the authority to make changes to what was voted was upon. So, we vote, we move forward, we come back, we move forward. So. I feel like there’s a little bit of a merry-go-round on how often we’re going to come together and vote on these things and how decisions in the future could be made about that.”

Franklin also said if the town wants to look at storage needs it should do so in a more comprehensive way – not just for this building. 


Several other speakers got up to the podium – making points on each side of the argument. At least one asserted that the town meeting was largely based on the petition, contending that it didn’t meet the town’s charter requirements for reconsideration. Others reiterated feelings that the original referendum didn’t include other alternatives for the building and asserted that the funds for demolition would likely cover building upgrades.  


A few speakers also advocated a suggestion that has surfaced for the town to explore the town taking over the state Superfund site at 51 Albany Turnpike, the former site of Mitchell Volkswagen – which is owned by an out-of-state company that doesn’t pay taxes – for storage needs. 


Others debated the feasibility of re-use of the station and asked questions of town officials. 

In addition to the controversy of reuse, the meeting took a few turns along the way and questions of process arose near the end. 


Sarah Faulkner, who was not feeling well, wanted to vote prior to the official call for ballots – a request that was denied. 


Additionally, at least one call came in for the Town of Canton Fire & EMS personnel and Richard Barlow requested its members be allowed to vote and then leave the meeting.


A voice vote on that issue followed, and moderator Melissa Zils said the no votes carried. Many in the crowd loudly disagreed and Barlow “appealed” the decision. 


The controversy was somewhat resolved, however, one at least one attendee “called the question.” At Canton town meetings in recent years, when the someone called the question it would typically be seconded and then a vote taken - generally by voice. If that was affirmative, discussion would end, and the meeting would move to a vote on the evening’s resolution. At this meeting, however, First Selectman Kevin Witkos said the call itself was non debatable and triggered an immediate vote. 


“The question has been called by a member of the audience. According to Robert’s Rules of Order the question being called is non debatable. Therefore, the comment period is now concluded, and we will move directly into a vote,” Witkos said. 


Some were not happy that the question was called but based on the ruling, Zils called for the ballots.


Paper ballots were then deposited and counted – with 52 voting no, while 37 voted yes. Voter identity was verified at the beginning of the meeting - as participants entered the Canton High School Auditorium.

 

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