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Hot Debate: Push For New Hyannis Fire Station Renews Calls For Consolidation

Laura M. Reckford
Written by Laura M. Reckford
Hyannis Fire Chief Harold Brunelle is in his 43rd year with the department.

Hyannis Fire Chief Harold Brunelle is in his 43rd year with the department.

BARNSTABLE – Hyannis Fire Chief Harold Brunelle grew up on Bearse’s Way, two blocks from the Hyannis Fire Station, chasing fire trucks with his cousins and dreaming of one day becoming a fireman.

“It’s all I ever wanted to do,” he said.

Now in his 43rd year with the department, for Brunelle these last years have been consumed with the battle to replace the 51-year-old station with a new building that meets the needs of the district.

Since the spring of 2014, the district has taken three votes on the funding for a new fire station, each time falling short of the two-thirds needed to pass the appropriation.

And as the district gears up for its fourth vote on a new fire station on April 9, a group calling itself Citizens for a Better Fire Station is opposing the plans, calling them too expensive.

Signs in the fire station urge voters to approve a new fire station.

Signs in the fire station urge voters to approve a new fire station.

Both sides agree that the fire station building is too small and is in a terrible state of disrepair. A tour of the station reveals exposed walls, water leaks, over-crowding, sewage backups and damaged flooring, among many other issues.

The current plans call for an $18.6 million, 32,000-square-foot station to be built on the same site on High School Road in Hyannis where the station was built in 1965. That year, the staff—only four full-timers plus call firemen—responded to 589 calls. These days, the station’s 54 firefighters and EMTs respond to over 7,000 calls per year.

The project to construct a new station has been a long time coming. “We’ve been working on it for 15 years and working hard on it for five years. It’s obvious we have to do something,” Brunelle said.

But therein lies the impasse.

On one side is the crumbling Hyannis Fire Station and on the other is a loud call for consolidation of Barnstable’s five fire districts. In between there are some colorful metaphors about parties and dances, friendships dashed and motives questioned. Trust is gone. Cynicism reigns. Honesty is under contention and so is basic math. But one thing no one questions is that the upcoming vote on April 9 for a new Hyannis Fire Station will be no cinch for the district.

 

WaveThe Opposition

A leader of the opposition group, Richard Sommers grew up in Hyannis and now works in special education at Cape Cod Community College. Sommers insists that the opponents are not against a new station. “Almost unanimously, people feel we do need something better here and we do want a better station. What I’m against is the cost,” Sommers said.

Sommers and the other opponents are what he calls “a very loose and informal group” with diverse opinions. But if passion can be judged by exclamation points, a flyer they are distributing shows they possess it in spades. Eight exclamation points—plus four question marks—add up to a message of outrage and deep suspicion about the fire station project.

Some of the opponents are calling for a look at consolidation of the town’s five fire districts as a way to cut taxes for town residents and ensure a more fair distribution of costs.

Lifelong Hyannis resident Felicia Penn took that message to the fire commissioners but, she said, her proposal was ignored. She said the opponents feel strongly about a long-term goal of consolidation.

“They all say they are happy to support the fire station provided [the commissioners] respond that business as usual”—meaning the fire districts—“is not acceptable,” Penn said.

To bring up consolidation now, Hyannis Fire Commissioner Peter Cross said, is akin to “throwing a rotten fish in the middle of a party” when the conversation is not going your way.

Barnstable Fire Commissioner Peter Cross voted against the first two iterations of the new fire station plan but says he supports this one.

Barnstable Fire Commissioner Peter Cross voted against the first two iterations of the new fire station plan but says he supports this one.

Barnstable Fire Commission Chairman Peter Cross, who also has lived most of his life in Hyannis, has changed his mind about the station since it was first proposed. “I voted against the first two iterations, because it was too expensive. It was too big,” Cross said. But he said he is strongly in favor of the new proposal, which he said has been well vetted by the commissioners.

Cross said the timing of the consolidation talk is suspect.

To bring up consolidation now, Cross said, is akin to “throwing a rotten fish in the middle of a party” when the conversation is not going your way. Now it’s all people can talk instead of the need for a new fire station. “They’re trying to sidetrack it,” he said.

Brunelle said the Hyannis fire department, which was founded in 1896, is not only the busiest fire station on the Cape but one of the busiest in the entire state. It serves 18,000 year-round residents plus a major influx of summer visitors in nine square miles that includes four high schools, a regional hospital, the harbor, an urban downtown area, municipal buildings, an airport and a mall. The station’s response times are among the highest levels in the region, the chief said.

 

WaveUpcoming Vote

EMS Supervisor Mike Medieros starts a tour of the aging fire station by pointing out the wall off the reception area where water damage has led to exposed wires and crumbling walls. Nearby is the office of the fire district clerk/treasurer, Verna LaFleur. When she leaves for the day, Medeiros said, she drapes towels over papers in the office. Otherwise, if it rains overnight, they could be ruined from the leaking skylight. The entryway is also the place EMTs need to use if someone enters the station with a medical emergency—something that happens frequently, Medeiros said. In the basement, moldy carpeting and sheetrock has been removed, exposing bare walls and floors. Grates in the garage bays are sunken and the floors are lined with cracks.

Water damage near the entrance to the fire station has led to exposure of parts of the wall and ceiling.

Water damage near the entrance to the fire station has led to exposure of parts of the wall and ceiling.

In the year-and-a-half since the last vote on the station, the issue has remained contentious. The stakes could not be higher for the Cape’s busiest fire department and the opposition has proved to be much more than a minor annoyance.

Hyannis Fire Commissioner Victor Skende said of the need to get two-thirds approval, “It’s a high hurtle to reach but it’s appropriate. We are listening to a majority of taxpayers. We had close to two-thirds two times. We are looking for a straight up or down vote. If people vote on the merits of whether the village needs a firehouse, I’m sure we’re going to win.”

The opponents are also confident.

Hyannis John Julius is perhaps the most vocal opponent of the current plans for a new firehouse.

Hyannis John Julius is perhaps the most vocal opponent of the current plans for a new firehouse.

“Clearly we have a grass roots effort,” said John Julius, perhaps the most vocal of the opponents of the current firehouse plan. He wants a lower cost and consideration of a renovation instead of building new. He points to the Boylston Fire Station in Boston, built in the 1850s and renovated 12 times over the years. “They continue to tell us they can’t renovate. I want people in Hyannis to know, we should vote this down again. Nothing bad will happen. The men and women of the fire station do a fabulous job. Their work has never been in question. The only question is the unfairness and the price,” Julius said.

Skende said commissioners looked into renovation and it would be more expensive. “We have gone through this design. Our need is really immediate. It really isn’t a choice at this point. The village—not the commissioners and not the department—the village deserves a firehouse that they can be proud of and that can deliver the services we expect as residents, businesses and visitors to the village.”

 

WaveThird Rail of Barnstable Politics

In any story about the town of Barnstable, a close look reveals a rich history. In this case, that history includes a 1936 special task force appointed to consider consolidation of the town’s fire districts.

That’s right. Consolidation of the fire districts in Barnstable has been under discussion for at least 80 years.

The apparatus garage has no space for a mechanic to work. That has to be done outside.

The apparatus garage has no space for a mechanic to work. That has to be done outside.

On February 5, 1936, a committee appointed by town meeting to consider the advisability of consolidating the town’s fire districts issued its final report. According to a newspaper account, the group, which included several family names familiar to residents today—Frederic F. Scudder, Frank G. Thacher, Frederic S. Kent, Bernard Ames and Ezra J. Gifford —“came to the unanimous conclusion that the time will come when it will be to the best interests of the inhabitants to abolish the fire districts and have the fire protection and street lighting handled by the town. It was also voted unanimously to make no recommendation.”

John Julius said the fact that town fathers in 1936 were considering consolidation says it all.

“It’s 2016. How in God’s name are we still talking about consolidating the fire districts?” Julius said.

Julius has proven to be a long-time foil of the fire district. His take-no-prisoners style of confrontation has included suing the district over its seemingly unlimited taxation abilities.

Felicia Penn, who is chair of the Cape Cod Economic Development Council, said she decided to speak out against the new station proposal as someone who is “a lifelong resident, a property owner and someone who cares deeply for the village of Hyannis.”

“I’m opposed to the new station. I think it’s too much money,” she said.

She went to the fire commissioner’s meeting several weeks ago “trying to offer an alternative to what they’re doing—a quid pro quo.”

Her offer: support consolidation and we will support you. She threw in a comment about hoping her tires weren’t slashed. Penn said it was a harmless joke, but she said she realizes the chief was offended by the remark.

The commissioners appear to have been offended as well. “None of them would look at me after I did the presentation.” Penn said. She told them to take a couple weeks to think about her proposal and then, “I’d appreciate a response.” Two weeks later there was no response, not even a negative one. Penn said she would have preferred to hear something—anything—other than silence. “They didn’t even say, ‘You’re being stupid or we’ve heard this a million times.’ They didn’t say anything. She added, “There’s zero attempt to represent the people who elected them.”

For Penn, the issue is personal, since she has known several of the commissioners most of her life.

Hyannis Fire Commissioner Demetrius Atsalis says he did not care for what he termed Felicia Penn's threat.

Hyannis Fire Commissioner Demetrius Atsalis says he did not care for what he termed Felicia Penn’s threat.

Fire Commissioner Demetrius Atsalis said Felicia Penn’s quid pro quo was inappropriate. “I don’t like having a gun put to my head by Felicia,” Atsalis said. He said consolidation is not an overnight process and linking it to the fire station project is not realistic. “That’s basically holding a ransom. The fire district needs a new firehouse yesterday not tomorrow.”

When it comes to the issue of consolidation, Atsalis considers himself well-versed. He was the one who brought the fire district consolidation issue to the legislature years ago when he was state representative for the Second Barnstable District. He said he filed a bill seeking to do away with the districts at the request of one of his constituents, Gary Lopez. The bill died after the voters of Hyannis turned down consolidation at the polls, Atsalis said.

“I’m confident the vote 15 years ago would be the same today,” Atsalis said. “I firmly believe people are happy [with the current system of districts],” he said.

Fire district staff said they were open to a discussion about consolidation, but now is not the time.

Chief Brunelle said, “We work together all the time. We’re not afraid of change and consolidation. It’s all about the level of service.”

Brunelle said that people assume consolidation will save money. “It will probably cost a lot more money. If you do consolidate, you assume all the liabilities that go along with that. Some people’s taxes will go way up from where they are now.”

He said that the fire department’s level of service rating affects people’s home insurance rates. The Hyannis department has one of the highest levels of service with regard to response times in the state and that means better insurance rates for property owners, he said. That could change with consolidation, he said.

Hyannis Fire EMS Supervisor Michael Medeiros shows plans for the new fire station.

Hyannis Fire EMS Supervisor Michael Medeiros shows plans for the new fire station.

Hyannis Fire EMS Supervisor Michael Medeiros said of consolidation, “that’s probably above my pay grade.” But he said, “The issue we’ve had in the past is getting everybody at the table. We need buy-in from all the other villages. That’s been the hurtle in the past.”

Commissioner Cross said consolidation should be discussed, but right now, the district needs a new fire station and that cannot wait.

With the urban area covered by the district and the large number of tax exempt properties, Cross said, “There’s no question people in Hyannis are carrying a very heavy load.” But he said a shift to consolidation is not going to come easily.

Cross said, “We have to be realistic about it. It’s a conversation that should occur, but it’s a long, hard conversation,” and, Cross pointed out, the last time it was put to the voters of the town, “it had no traction whatsoever.”

 

WaveWhat Others Say

Meg Loughran is a West Barnstable resident and former president of the Centerville Civic Association who has been co-facilitating the town of Barnstable’s Citizens Leadership Academy for 13 years. Loughran said there have been many academy participants over the years who have questioned the reason for having five fire districts and she has heard the rationale from Hyannis Fire Deputy Chief Dean Melanson numerous times.

The Hyannis Fire Station sign urges voters to support a new station.

The Hyannis Fire Station sign urges voters to support a new station.

“It comes down to the uniqueness of the Hyannis department,” she said. With the number of calls the Hyannis fire station gets, she questions whether consolidation might have a negative impact on response time. While the Centerville Civic Association has not discussed the issue in recent years, her personal view is that separate fire districts work.

“Part of it is retaining that New England character. We have enough big government.” She said the fire department staff seem to like the separateness “and they’re the ones doing the jobs.” But she did suggest a middle ground. “Maybe there’s a way other districts can throw support to Hyannis,” Loughran said.

Looking to opinions of ratepayers in the town’s smaller fire districts, like Cotuit, there is also an indication that people are content with the current system.

In a 2014 blog post by David Churbuck, a former journalist and great great grandson of a Cotuit whaling captain, he states what he feels are the value of the separate districts: “Cotuit’s Fire District is essential to keep the village’s individual identity intact and to give its residents a truly local voice in the management of the place. While the calls for consolidation into a single Town of Barnstable system continue to be heard in the name of efficiency and economy, we Cotusions need to keep in mind that our Fire District — granted to us by the legislature in the 1920s — gives us a degree of sovereign autonomy and control over our affairs that once given up, can’t be regained.”

Overcrowding extends to a closet that doubles as a training library, complete with a "dummy" that takes up the floor space.

Overcrowding extends to a closet that doubles as a training library, complete with a “dummy” that takes up the floor space.

Atsalis summed up what he believes are the feelings of people in other parts of town. “The other fire districts don’t want to consolidate,” Atsalis said. And the reason they don’t want to consolidate: “Why change? It’s working fine.” He said the biggest reason people are against consolidation is “they don’t mind paying more for a response time of 3 to 5 minutes.”

Commissioner Atsalis also said people are concerned that if the fire district is a town department then public safety staff would be subject to layoffs when town budgets are tight.

Julius said elected officials are among those too timid to bring up the fire district issue. “The council won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole,” he said. “They shouldn’t be afraid of it. Let the voters decide.”

Julius said 160 people work for the town’s five fire districts—“their wonderful work and dedication is not in question,” he said—but town councilors are put in place by thousands of voters. Their allegiance should be clear. He said the issue needs to be put on the ballot on a Tuesday in November. He said that he is working with a group that will get the message out to voters about what a waste the system of fire districts is.

Julius said he understands why employees of the various districts might be against consolidation. “It’s human nature. I’d feel the same way if my career were threatened,” he said. Julius compares the town of Barnstable, with 72 square miles to the town of Plymouth, which has 134 square miles.They have one fire department with an annual budget of $10 million. By comparison, Julius said Hyannis fire district with one station covering 9 square miles has an annual budget of $9 million.

 

WaveThe ‘Kumbaya Moment’

Hyannis Fire Commissioner Victor Skende says the opposition has been spreading a lot of false information.

Hyannis Fire Commissioner Victor Skende says the opposition has been spreading a lot of false information.

Skende said consolidation is simply too big an issue to throw into the mix right before the upcoming vote. “That won’t be decided on the 9th of April. If we have a positive vote for the station then we could take a positive direction after that. If it’s shot down, I don’t know anyone who will want to consolidate with Hyannis.”

But Skende said he is open-minded on the issue of consolidation. “We’re willing to talk to anybody who is interested. The process is long and arduous. It was resoundingly defeated twice. we’re willing to go back down that route. No one is rejecting it out of hand but nobody is signing our dance card. If you don’t have two people, you don’t have a dance.”

As for taking on consolidation, Penn said, “Nobody has the guts to pick up the gauntlet and say, ‘It’s time.’ Let’s meet around a table and start the conversation. Hire a mediator.”

John Julius said the fact that town fathers in 1936 were considering consolidation says it all. “It’s 2016. How in God’s name are we still talking about consolidating the fire districts?”

Bill Cronin, president of the Greater Hyannis Civic Association, said he has been on the record many times over the years in favor of consolidation. “The fire districts ought to be consolidated, wiped out and come under the town of Barnstable, like it does in most towns and cities. But it’s never going to happen. People are afraid, ‘I’ll lose my fire station.’” He said the typical Barnstable resident does not look closely enough at their tax bill to realize how much the fire district is costing them.

When you talk to people about consolidation, Cronin said, “People say, ‘It’s nice to have our own fire department.’ To that Cronin said, “It’s nice but it gets awful damn expensive.”

He said people in town, particularly the elderly are concerned the service, specifically the ambulance service, will suffer. “You can’t fight that. A portion of the population is elderly and they depend on the fire department. I depend on them,” Cronin said.

Skende said the Hyannis fire station’s “deplorable conditions” stand in the way of consolidation at the present time. “We don’t have anything to offer another fire district.” But, he said, he is not going to sit down to talk about consolidation when it comes with a threat. “That’s a non-starter with me.” he said.

Skende said, “What we have on our plate right now is this vote on the 9th. After that vote, we can assess where we’re at and can explore options. Our objective now is to get a new firehouse for the village. Down the line, we can sit and talk with whoever wants to talk. We’re not going to do it under threats or intimidation or with those working hard to defeat the new firehouse.”

Firefighter uniforms stand ready for the next emergency.

Firefighter uniforms stand ready for the next emergency.

But Penn said she believes her offer made sense. “What we want is to diversify the tax base. You get more money from more people. If you will start the conversation on consolidation or talk to the town about merging the districts or if you can be creative on diversifying the tax base, we’d be happy to support the station as is and we can all go forward on our kumbaya moment together,” Penn said.

Penn said, “I know it’s a long-time thing. It won’t happen overnight. It might take two to three years of discussion before getting started and it might take 10 to 15 years to implement it. We just want to start the conversation now.” She said she has found that the state will help towns with technical assistance to implement consolidation, but first there must be agreement among all the parties. “They know that is the stumbling block,” she said.

 

WaveProcess and The Upcoming Vote

The fire commissioners have been heavily criticized about the logistics of the upcoming special meeting and vote.

Bill Cronin (sitting on the aisle, third row back), president of the Greater Hyannis Civic Association, listens at a fire district meeting.

Bill Cronin (sitting on the aisle, third row back), president of the Greater Hyannis Civic Association, listens at a fire district meeting.

Julius has a laundry list of problems with the upcoming vote. One is the fact that it is in April, when many residents might be on vacation.

He said, “The voters are still away. Why not vote in May?” He questions why there is no provision for an absentee ballot. Also, people who own property in the district but live outside the district cannot vote. “The whole set up is unfair,” Julius said.

Commissioner Cross called the opponents “ministers of misinformation” when it comes to the details of the vote itself. “We are having a meeting not an election,” he said, and at a meeting, just like at town meeting, there can be no absentee ballots. “It’s a bond vote. It has to be done at a district meeting.”

Skende said the process is governed by state law. “This is a vote on an appropriation. We have to follow the format of town meeting. We did not have the option of holding an election. Special meetings are not elections. The only time there can be an election is when we are electing commissioners or a moderator,” Skende said.

But Julius is unconvinced. “My push is to continue to vote ‘no’ and send them back to the drawing board,” Julius said, he wants a station built at $300 per square foot.

Atsalis said he questions the motives of the opponents of the fire station. “I want the other side to be honest and say they don’t want it at all,” he said.

Atsalis said perhaps what is more disheartening to him is that the opponents are making their point by denigrating the village and saying it is impoverished. “I’m from Hyannis. I drive around Hyannis and I certainly wouldn’t call it impoverished. Look at Lowell or Springfield. I’m just asking for honesty.”

Sommers, one of the leaders of the opposition, said it is a shame that the sides are so entrenched. “Having been around here this long, my whole feeling is we should be working together. This is a community project. This should be something we can solve,” he said.

 

WaveOn the Fire Station

Commissioner Atsalis said district voters should realize the tax increase for the station is not permanent; it will decline over the life of the bond. For a home assessed at $300,000, the tax would start at 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for a quarterly impact of about $27. The amount will decline over the 30 years of the bond.

Hoses lined up near the apparatus in the Hyannis Fire Station garage.

Hoses lined up near the apparatus in the Hyannis Fire Station garage.

The price tag for the project has come down by more than $6 million since it was first proposed. The first estimate was over $25 million for a building of 56,000 square feet. Now the proposed station is 32,000 square feet and $18.7 million with an additional $1.2 million expected to come off the bonding because of the sale of two district owned properties.

Opponents have continued to question the cost. After the third vote for the station failed to pass, Sommers said he and other opponents got together to do some research to figure out what would be a reasonable cost for a new station.

The group used as an example a station recently built in Norwalk, Connecticut. Using similar square footage costs, it would put the Hyannis station at $13.5 million instead of $18.7 million.

“That was our proposal and they weren’t interested in it,” Sommers said. “We wanted to be proactive. We think there needs to be a new station but this is way beyond what seniors can afford. We were really disappointed that they brought back the same cost.”

Cross said the proposed firehouse is a no-frills station to replace a building that has deteriorated significantly over 50 years. “We have inadequate living quarters for men and women, no place for decontamination, no place to work on mechanics. “It’s pared down to something I can live with,” Cross said.

Felicia Penn said the cost is still too high but there is also a principal involved. “It’s not that my taxes will go up another 200 or 300 dollars a year. It is really the principal of they can do what they’re doing just because they can,” she said.

She said the commissioners are not transparent. “They don’t discuss the budget; they mention an audit but won’t name the auditor or what marketer they hired and how much they are paying,” she said.

The vast majority of calls are EMS-related and the new plans call for a decontamination area for equipment and staff, something the current station does not have.

The vast majority of calls are EMS-related and the new plans call for a decontamination area for equipment and staff, something the current station does not have.

Commissioner Skende said they did not hire a firm to market the station. He said the process for getting the word out is very straightforward.

“No one was hired. We have a small committee and we are meeting every other week. We have established a website and a Facebook page. We try to answer questions and comments. It’s a traditional campaign to get out the vote and education the people of the village on why we need a new fire station. We can talk about consolidation but we need a building. We need a safe working environment for our employees,” Skende said.

Skende said the district’s books are audited annually. He said he does not know the name of the auditing firm off hand but if anyone wants to look at the audit, it can be made available to them.

Atsalis encouraged people who are against the station to reach out to commissioners and “ask the tough questions—we have nothing to hide.”

He also criticized the opposition with not naming themselves on the flyer. “Have the courage to put your name on the handout,” he said.

Skende said it is hard to believe Penn’s group would support the fire station given what he considers to be misleading material the group has distributed. “They are starting with a figure that has no basis in reality. You cannot build a public safety building with $330 per square foot, so when Citizens for a Better Firehouse and others say if you agree, we’ll support it, they don’t tell you at what level of funding. And I submit, their numbers don’t make sense when you’re talking about building a firehouse.”

Skende said that comparisons to a station in Norwalk, Connecticut are unfair because the project was bid out at the height of the recession. He said they crunched the numbers and found that with inflation, the $14 million Norwalk station would now cost $18 million, about the same cost as the Hyannis station.

“The delay has cost us money,” Skende said. In addition, he said, the station has much less personnel and equipment than Hyannis. “It’s not comparable to what we have.”

 

WaveTax Exempt Properties

Penn and other opponents point out that the village of Hyannis houses both the lowest income sections of town and also the highest percentage of tax exempt properties, including the hospital, the Steamship Authority, the town hall and other municipal buildings, eight schools, numerous churches and a number of nonprofit social service organizations.

EMS Supervisor Michael Medeiros shows the wiring in the dispatch area.

EMS Supervisor Michael Medeiros shows the tangle of wiring in the dispatch area.

“Add all that up and its a hefty chunk off the tax base. That pushes it back on the the residential taxpayer and on the remaining commercial property,” Penn said.

Penn said she is frustrated by the fact that the town council would consider a tax break to the new Fairfield Inn and Suites, a hotel that replaced a Days Inn on Route 132. The tax increment financing deal, or TIF, would give a 20-year tax incentive. “When you have tax base that’s already constrained, why give up new tax revenue to a motel that is not in need of urban renewal. It’s a total misconstrual of how the program is supposed to work,” she said.

On that, Hyannis Fire Commissioner Peter Cross agrees. “That drives me crazy,” he said. “The town council is making all these grand pronouncements and they’re giving away our money. They are giving away our ability to tax.”

Cronin of the civic associaiton said,“I would think the town of Barnstable itself should be helping the Hyannis Fire District because we’re taking care of all of Hyannis. He particularly brought up Cape Cod Health Care, owner of Cape Cod Hospital, which, as a nonprofit, pays no taxes.

Julius said the village of Hyannis has $567 million in tax exempt properties, according to the tax assessor. “The great financial burden falls on property owners. It’s an extremely unfair tax,” he said of the fire district tax, adding that consolidation is a way to solve it.

 

WaveDo The Math

Is it $18.6 million or $17.4 million or add $3.5 million and it’s $21 million down from the original request of $25 million or was that original request for $20 million since the $3.4 million for the land was already approved and voted in what was a typically—at least before this new fire station issue came up—small group of voters. Are Hyannis fire district voters taxes the highest in the state or not even the highest in town?

It depends how you do the math.

Felicia Penn said the current bonding cost of $17.4 million does not count the initial $3.5 million voted in 2010 for land next to the fire station. “So there’s a different opinion on reality of what they are asking for.”

John Julius said, “All they have to do is drop four to five million off the price. The cost of this station is still over $21 million and they continue to say it’s $17.6 million. They already spent $3.5 million. The whole thing is basically deplorable. I believe it will be voted down again.”

For Hyannis resident Alan Granby, the high cost of the station is the reason he is opposed to it. “They’ve just gone over the limit which is why it drew my attention,” he said. “These guys are fiscally irresponsible.”

Granby said it is “utterly preposterous” to be inconveniencing voters with a fourth vote in two years on the project. He owns a number of rental properties in town and, he said, he tries hard not to increase rents.“I know the reality is we’re going to get walloped with multiple tax increases and these poor people are going to have to get rent increases,” he said.

Skende said adding the previous expense of $3.5 million to the square footage cost of the station makes no sense because the fire district voters already approved the purchase of the neighboring lots and appropriated that money. “That shouldn’t relate to square footage costs. One has nothing to do with the other,” he said.

Towels cover paperwork in the fire district clerk's office where a skylight has been known to leak.

Towels cover paperwork in the fire district clerk’s office where a skylight has been known to leak.

He said two independent estimators came within $60,000 in estimating what the station should cost. “That’s not even a rounding error figure,” Skende said. “It is what it is. Nobody’s happy with it. That’s what it costs to build a public safety building in Massachusetts.”

How about the square footage of the building? Is $564 per square foot higher than other fire stations, as opponents state, or actually well within the range of similar buildings, as proponents claim?

“We don’t want a fire station that is basically going to raise our taxes by 20 to 24 percent,” Julius said. “The Hyannis taxpayers pay 20.6 percent of their total tax bill for fire protection. That is the absolutely highest percentage paid for fire protection of any city or town in Massachusetts. 5.5% of the total tax bill is the state average.”

Or is it?

Cross said that math doesn’t add up. He said, looking at his tax bill, which lists the tax rates for all five Barnstable fire districts, Hyannis is right in the middle. “That’s a bogus claim,” he said.

But Richard Sommers said the calculation that Hyannis has the highest fire taxes in the state is a basic calculation of percentages that can be calculated from a spreadsheet of all 351 towns from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue. In looking at those figures, the budgets of fire departments make up, on average, about 5.5% of the total tax of towns. “We’re paying 20.6 percent, the highest in Massachusetts, and the commercial properties [in Hyannis] are paying over 30 percent,” he said.

Penn called the square footage cost “absurd.” She added, “It’s fuzzy math.”

Julius said the question of why the square footage price is so high has never been properly addressed. “Why are we still at $582 per square foot when the national average is 300 per square foot?”

Fire Commissioner Skende said, “We’ve looked at what construction costs on public safety buildings. We’re in the ballpark with what generally happens. State and federal regulations come into play. The need to go out to bid and ensure a prevailing wage applies.”

He said building on Cape Cod affects the price of a building as does the building boom in Boston, which, Skende said, is where the labor force will likely come from. “We’ve done what we can to contain the costs. As a committee, we’re determined to pinch every penny we can. No one wants to spend more on a firehouse than is absolutely necessary.”

Atsalis agreed. “The fire district can’t hire local contractors. We need to meet the prevailing wage. We’re not just building a garage. It has to withstand the fire apparatus. It’s a different kind of construction,” he said.

Skende said every delay makes the project more expensive. “The reality is the cost keeps going up.”

If the vote doesn’t pass, Penn said life will go on. “They’ll fix what they need to fix so they are in a healthy environment and I hope they try again with a less expensive building.”

But Skende said a ‘no’ vote will have dire consequences. “It probably means we’re going to have to spend a lot of money to bring [the building] up to code, not thousands but hundreds of thousands. It’s going to be an exorbitant amount of money. We can’t have a building that’s not ADA complaint. We can’t continue to have a building that doesn’t have separate facilities for women firefighters. We’re going to have to spend a great deal of money from the roof to the apparatus floor to everything inside to bring it into compliance. We have doors that swing the wrong way and are not in compliance with building codes. We’ll end up with an expensive rehab of a building that is still too small, inadequate and out of date.”

 

WaveEmotional Issue

Julius said he knows some residents, particularly seniors are afraid to speak against the station. “I’ve had 20 of my own friends say to me, ‘Aren’t you afraid?’ There is a fear factor.” He said he has asked friends to write letters to the newspapers agains the station but they are afraid to have their name in print as opponents. “We shouldn’t be afraid. I’m fighting for the innocent people afraid to speak up. I’m speaking for them. It’s very sad.”

But Atsalis said there are plenty of residents in favor of the station, including people whose opinions have changed on the firehouse, who are in favor of it now after being opposed in the past. “You have to evolve in the decision-making process,” he said.

“I’m encouraged by the response we’ve had to date. It’s clear a majority of the voters of the district are in favor of this project.” Hyannis Fire Commissioner Victor Skende

Allen Goddard, longtime Hyannis resident, is one of those who has changed his mind on the fire station. He has gone from an opponent to an ardent supporter. He says he trusts the commissioners.

“I voted against the station in the past, however, I’ve watched the current commissioners in action. I feel they have done everything they can do to be prudent. I believe there won’t be an opportunity for a cheaper or better station in the future, so I’m voting ‘yes’ this time,” Goddard said.

Goddard said that the new commissioners have worked for transparency, posting details about the meetings and the agendas on the district website for instance, instead of just posting the meetings on a bulletin board in the fire station. “One of the reasons people were mad at the commissioners was it was very difficult to find out where the meetings were,” he said.

Goddard and Hyannis Fire Commissioner Atsalis emphasized that voters need to realize they don’t have to be a homeowner to vote, just a registered voter “If you rent a condo or apartment, your vote counts. Hyannis deserves a new firehouse for the residents and taxpayers of Hyannis. It’s clear—cut and dry,” Atsalis said.

“You can’t fight city hall, but I’m doing what I can.” Linda Rowell of Hyannis

Hyannis resident Linda Rowell also sees the issue of the new fire station in black and white.

“The commissioners are just not willing to compromise at all. They’re devious, frankly,” she said.

Rowell said she attended meetings of the fire commissioners for two years. “They spend money like water. I’ve asked them many times how can they cut expenses. They just ignore me. They never come up with a way to cut expenses,” she said. “A lot of people are really angry.”

Rowell believes strongly in consolidation. “The whole fire system should be under one chief and management by the town. When it comes time to build a new building, the whole town would contribute via property taxes,” she said.

Rowell said, “You can’t fight city hall, but I’m doing what I can.”

For his part, Skende is optimistic about the upcoming vote. “I’m encouraged by the response we’ve had to date. It’s clear a majority of the voters of the district are in favor of this project. Getting the two-thirds vote is always going to be difficult but I think we have a product that we can sell. There’s no frills in that proposal. It’s a barebones firehouse. It will meet our immediate needs and get us into the future and I really think if people look at this objectively and get past the emotional response, they’ll realize this is a station the village needs and the village can be proud of,” Skende said.

The Hyannis Fire District Special Meeting is scheduled for Saturday, April 9, at the Barnstable Performing Arts Center at Barnstable High School in Hyannis. The meeting begins at 9:30am and voting by written ballot is from 10am to 2pm.

 

— Want more about Barnstable’s government? Here’s a longform article from Cape Cod Wave about how the town came to be searching for a new town manager: “‘Winds of Change’ — Barnstable Looks for New Town Manager.” This story was first posted in January 2016.

— For more stories about Barnstable, click here.

— For more longform articles from Cape Cod Wave, click here.

About the author

Laura M. Reckford

Laura M. Reckford

Laura M. Reckford is co-founder of Cape Cod Wave. She has been a reporter and editor on Cape Cod for more than 20 years in magazines, newspapers and radio. She has also authored numerous Frommer's Travel Guide editions on Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.

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