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Bow officials weigh options in wake of failed safety facility proposal

With the rejection by Bow voters Wednesday of plans for a $7.7 million public safety facility, one question lingers: What now?

The existing fire and police department buildings are drastically outdated, according to officials and residents. The state fire marshal has threatened to shut down the fire station because it no longer meets safety codes and is not handicapped accessible. There are leaks in the basement and mold in the living quarters. Wires are exposed. Fire engines can barely squeeze into the parking bays.

At the police station, which was a trucking center in its former life, safety and legal concerns abound. There are no holding cells. Criminals and pedestrians share the same bathroom – the only bathroom. There are no means to separate detained minors and adults, or males and females, as required by law. Officers are unable to provide privacy for juveniles who are arrested and brought to the station.

“We have a problem,” said Jack Crisp, a selectman who fielded a number of questions about the proposal at Wednesday’s meeting. “And we still need to solve that, so I think we’re just going to have to come back to the town with something next year to address it.”

What that new pitch will be remains unclear. Crisp and other members of the project’s planning committee said yesterday that they must now sit down and see whether and how they can salvage their dismissed design, into which taxpayers have already sunk more than $240,000. But some said they have explored all the alternatives and have just presented the town with the best and most cost effective course of action.

“Every option was looked at – renovate what you have, build just a fire station, do nothing – all of those were priced out and considered,” Crisp said. “And it was very clear that the most economical thing to do was build a combined center. So what you do differently the next time around, I don’t know.”

Crisp said two challenges the planning committee will likely grapple with in the coming year are rising bond interest rates and construction costs, both of which he and others have said are at drastic lows as the nation’s economy begins to rebound from recession.

Opponents said Wednesday they recognized the need for something to be done but had reservations about the proposed project’s cost and what it would mean for their tax rates, especially since they just began paying off a $12.5 million bond for a town water line.

“My taxes have tripled in the last 20 years,” resident Lisa Cohen said during the meeting. She told officials and residents that she was skeptical of the need for such an elaborate new facility, and suggested that the town address existing ailments and inadequacies individually; the fire department, for example, can purchase a recreational vehicle for volunteers to live in, or the police department could build an extra bathroom.

Bob Eldredge, a member of the planning committee, said renovating the existing buildings would still be costly – the firm that designed Wednesday’s proposal estimated that renovations would run about $5.84 million – and would almost certainly not provide the same functionality and lifespan that a new complex would.

Harry Judd, a selectman, said he was surprised by Wednesday’s outcome and felt the community had missed an opportunity to address a serious concern that had gone long ignored. Finding a solution for the fire and police departments has been a necessity for 20 years, he said, but it consistently gets pushed aside to make way for other, potentially more enticing, projects.

That needs to change, he said. “My feeling is you replace the roof on the house before you build a swimming pool.”

Still, Judd and others said they have hope that a viable plan will surface in the next year, when voters will be a step closer to paying off an expensive school bond. And visions of a future town center live on despite this week’s decision, they said.

Crisp noted that though this proposal fell short of the two-thirds majority necessary to pass, it still received simple majority approval. “The message I got last night was that most people want this,” he said. “If everyone had voted against it, that would have been a very different message.”

Eldredge echoed the sentiment. “We’ve got the majority of the town that understands this is a need,” he said. “Now it’s just a manner of getting them into the right building.”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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