A draft report examining current and future needs of municipal departments says the town and village will need to spend millions of dollars in the coming decades if they want to improve the work environments of their staff.
The report, prepared by consultants Scott + Partners Architects, is the first step in a multi-phase project looking at three departments across the town and village: public works, fire and recreation. Phase I of the project involved a survey of the municipal buildings and a projection of necessary space requirements moving forward.
The findings paint a troubling picture for the status quo; beyond the police and municipal offices, departments in both communities are operating in “substandard facilities,” the report says, requiring “significant ongoing maintenance and ‘work-arounds’” to deliver services to the community.
“We’ve been ignoring some of these departments for quite a while,” said John Alden, an architect with Scott + Partners who also serves on the town’s planning commission.
“In addition, evolving building codes are making code compliance in the workplace difficult or impossible to meet,” reads the report, noting existing structures were compared to current building codes, not those that were in place when the buildings were constructed.
The fire departments are furthest from compliance. Both stations fail to meet minimum standards for sprinkler coverage, gear handling and storage, according to the report, and the town station lacks an exhaust system needed to keep truck fumes from spreading throughout the building.
“I can’t understand why it’s not there,” Alden said, urging the town to order the system “tomorrow.”
The report identified further safety concerns at the town public works garage, where it says there’s poor separation between the truck bays and the offices. “Air quality is compromised for town employees,” the report reads, while space for emergency or disaster response is “inadequate for multi-day events, storms or natural disasters.”
Besides Essex Jct. Recreation and Parks, the surveyed village and town departments offer square footage half of what is needed to be functional, the report says. Some buildings remain in good condition despite the lack of space. Others are “limping along” and at the end or beyond their anticipated life.
“Coupled with deficiencies in both building and site size, new locations supporting new facilities may be the most economical for the long-term future,” the report reads. It adds that shared or combined facilities may become “increasingly advantageous.”
As part of the draft report, the consultants also detailed several cost scenarios if the town and village continue operating separate facilities. The next phase will look at the cost and feasibility of combined town-village options and feature drawings of what some buildings may look like.
One cost scenario attaches a price tag for adding square footage onto existing buildings; the other shows how much it would be to build all new facilities. The prices fall at $15.8 million and $24.7 million, respectively.
The answer is probably somewhere in the middle, Alden said, since it’s unlikely that the municipalities will build all new facilities for each department. And while some immediate improvements may be necessary, the changes could be implemented over a period of years or even decades, Alden said.
With such sizeable price tags, timing and necessity will play a big role in determining whether elected officials can stomach some of the upgrades — and whether their constituents will support the moves.
The consultants had been asked to envision growth up to 50 years out, but Alden said it’s difficult to accurately project that far into the future. He said it’s more reasonable to project two to three decades out, but stressed a lot will still depend on how the town and village grow over that time.
“If we are planning and building our communities properly, [municipal departments] could get really popular and they could grow faster,” Alden said. “If we’re less able to fully develop a sewer core, or we can’t quite figure out how to put a five-story building in five corners, we may be slow.”
“The pressure’s out there. The density should come,” Alden added. “But the pace is a big question mark.”
The two boards had few questions at this point in the process and expect to be looped in on each phase prior to the report being published. Selectboard vice chairman Max Levy wondered whether the final report will offer any guidance on how the town should prioritize the projects, and municipal manager Evan Teich said staff are just starting to digest the draft reports findings.
Teich did, however, have at least one initial takeaway. “We tell everybody in the village and the town to follow the codes,” Teich said. “We need to set that example as well.”