, Newburyport, MA

February 22, 2013

Two fire stations or just one for West Newbury?

Selectmen discuss closing Garden Street facility


---- — WEST NEWBURY — To borrow from popular social media, when it comes to the town’s relationship with the Garden Street Fire Station, “it’s complicated.”

At issue is whether to keep running fire services out of the 72-year-old building or consolidate the department so that all emergency responses come from the Central Station.

At a meeting recently, selectmen Chairman Bert Knowles asked the three-member Board of Fire Engineers to explain the “pressing need to continue operating out of the Garden Street station.”

Selectman Glenn Kemper then made a motion to close the building, saying the secondary fire station had become “obsolete.” Kemper encouraged the engineers to focus their attention and efforts on the Central Fire Station on Main Street, including a plan they are proposing to fund some full-time staffing positions at Town Meeting later this spring.

Knowles and Kemper questioned the wisdom of supporting a nearly $40,000 appropriation request by the Public Works Department at Town Meeting to fund long-overdue repairs to Garden Street station. The vast majority of the town’s call fire department now responds to Central Station, not Garden Street, when an emergency comes over their portable radios, they said.

Closing the station was an idea whose time had come, Kemper said, adding that selectmen could then discuss other possible uses for the facility,

But this idea apparently came as news to the fire engineers.

“I came here tonight to discuss the budget for repairing the station — not closing the station,” said engineer Mark Hemingway.

Selectman Dick Cushing said he wouldn’t favor Kemper’s motion because he didn’t want to “catch residents by complete surprise” by voting to close the station without any prior notice.

Although Kemper argued the move would not be “catastrophic” to the town, ultimately he withdrew his motion when it became clear the fire engineers were not ready to weigh in on the plan.

The fire engineers did subsequently meet to debate the proposal, but when reached by phone afterward, fire Chief Scott Berkenbush declined to provide any details on how his board had voted. It was more complicated than just a simple tally, he said, adding that “It will really be clear when you see the letter,” referring to correspondence his board planned to present to selectmen next week.

Berkenbush called Kemper’s attempt to order fire engineers to close the station an overreach of authority. Although selectmen can “strongly advise” the fire department leadership, by statute they can’t “dictate to the Board of Fire Engineers.”

“He thinks he can do it, but he’s mistaken,” said the fire chief. The only recourse selectmen have is to not reappoint the same people as engineers next year.

Knowles and Kemper asserted that a commonly held belief around town that closing the Garden Street station would result in higher insurance rates is actually false. They noted that improved town roads and equipment upgrades over the years have made for significant reductions in responsetimes from the Central Station to all areas of town.

But Berkenbush says the insurance piece is more complicated than selectmen will allow.

“I’m just not as confident as they are that this is true,” he said. Insurance rates are based on a formula that factors in whether the property is on the town water system and how many miles it is from a fire station. The Garden Street station costs only a few thousand dollars to operate annually, so it is important to clear up any confusion over insurance before pushing for a station closing that could create a hike in insurance costs for private homeowners and/or town buildings such as the Page Elementary School, Berkenbush said.

Fire engineer Michael Dwyer said all direct and indirect costs to taxpayers must be considered before closing the station. But he also said he didn’t feel fire operations or emergency responses would be hampered if it was closed.

“We do a great job out of Central Station,” Dwyer said and offered praise for “the skill level and dedication of our current men and women.”

Berkenbush asserted that should the building no longer function as a fire station, it would no longer be a municipal property. Its ownership would revert back to the Laurel Grange #161, which deeded the property to the town in 1968.

But according to Town Counsel Michael McCarron, the lineage of the property is a bit more complicated. The deed says the property was given to the town with a restriction guaranteeing it would revert back to the grange “in the event that the Inhabitants of the Town of West Newbury ceases (sic) to use the conveyed portion for municipal purposes.”

But McCarron says according to state law, any reversion would have to have occurred within 30 years of the date of the deed. “Since the 30 years have passed, the town now owns the property in fee simple absolute,” he said.