It was a full house Monday at a highly anticipated Special Town Meeting, where the 10-plus year grind by the Essex Town Building Committee, the Board of Selectmen (BOS), the Fire and Police Departments and countless others to fund construction of a new public safety building on John Wise Avenue finally came to fruition with overwhelming approval.
Following their success, the BOS didn’t waste any time, immediately putting the $15.9 million project out to bid with pre-vetted bidding candidates and a schedule that would award the first contracts by November 1. Construction should begin November 11, 2019 and end May 12, 2021.
For the 288 residents in attendance at the Special Town Meeting, the sole article on the warrant was funding the public safety facility that would house both the Essex Fire and Police Departments.
The presenting team proceeded with a now-familiar series of presentations that have been shared at public forums and committee meetings over the last nine months. Even former Police Chief Peter Silva, who retired on July 31 after nearly 30 years with the force, couldn’t stay away. As a Beverly resident, he took a seat in the visitor’s section, dressed in his regular civilian garb.
Town Building Committee chair (and former chair of the Board of Selectman) Lisa O’Donnell said that the committee has intermittently worked on the project the entire time she’s served — for the past ten and a half years. She said even with the long history, the project gained a lot of traction in the last year when it became clear that Essex no longer had a choice in whether or not to move forward on a new public safety building. The state was coming down on the Town for non-compliance on regulations, and Finance Committee chair Ben Buttrick said the cost of construction was going up by five percent per year.
The Building Committee and the BOS had arrived with a plan at May’s Annual Town Meeting to proceed with the recommendation and initial design to place the building at a site on John Wise Avenue, which would merge a small parcel of land that the Town purchased with another, slightly larger parcel already owned by the Town. Cohabiting the two departments further saved money on the project by leveraging shared facilities (such as meeting rooms and training areas). But in May, all the town had from architects was a soft budget of $17.5 million that left too many unknowns, so the town made a key last-minute decision to ask for approval of $497,105 to develop a fully-detailed final document with a high-confidence budget. The Town Building Committee worked with various groups throughout the summer to advance the design and update the budget, also hosting two public forums in September to address questions and listen to residential input.
By Monday’s Special Town Meeting, the vetted budget had significantly dropped. Buttrick went over the cost of the project, which went from $17.5 to $15.9 million in the past couple of months — savings of $1.6 million. He then shared that Essex will pay for the project with debt of $12.5 million over 30 years and $3 million in cash. In favor of the town, Buttrick said, is the ability to use cash for some of the funding as well as the current low-interest rates for borrowing. Ultimately, the committee wanted to find a balance throughout the process that would minimize impact on taxpayers and maintain the fiscal health of the town. Then, John Roberts of Johnson Roberts Associates, Inc., the architectural firm overseeing the design of the building, showed a model of the facility, with its three main components (the fire department, the police department and shared facilities). He showed how its low-profile front design would blend into the property and how using the abutting property would enable fire trucks to turn around off-street, avoiding disruption of traffic on John Wise Avenue (Route 133). The team increased cost-efficiency by reducing square footage and not incorporating historic barn elements previously planned. (The acquired property on John Wise Avenue had a historic barn that the Building Committee and the BOS had sought to preserve via Community Preservation Act funding, but the CPA funding was not enough to cover the full $200,000 estimated cost, according to Roberts.) But perhaps the most compelling presentations of the night came from Police Chief Paul Francis and Fire Chief Daniel Doucette. After all, the two work in the current public safety facility and are intimately familiar with its shortcomings. Francis described the health and wellness concerns officers face when hazardous materials and pathogens attach to their uniforms, causing officers to bring their dirty uniforms home around their loved ones or, in extreme cases, throw the uniforms away. Likewise, health and safety were also a concern for Doucette, especially because, as he explained, firefighters are exposed to smoke and other irritants or carcinogens at far higher statistical rates than the average public. Both departments could benefit from updated facilities that allow for greater efficiency and safety, they explained. “Right now, security for us is abysmal,” said Police Chief Francis. He described two separate incidences where people were able to walk into the facility with firearms without their knowledge. The police department has Massachusetts state accreditation, awarded to less than ten percent of the state’s municipalities. The department is up to those tough standards, assured Francis, but there are aspects that have been given a short-term pass by the state. For instance, evidence and property is stored in what is, essentially, locked kitchen cabinets, while drug storage and disposal is right near the hustle and bustle of the rest of the station, he said. After the presentations, the floor was opened to public input. The theme from those opposed to the project was money. No one said a new facility wasn’t necessary. And many of those opposed to the project commended the Town Building Committee’s efforts, but still thought nearly $16 million was too much to ask.
There was a brief attempt at a secret ballot by the opposition that didn’t hit the necessary 53 votes to pass. With little momentum, the question was moved, then seconded, and the big vote taken. The question easily passed, securing the required 2/3 approval for the project. In the end, a 7:30 p.m. Special Town Meeting at Essex Elementary School had a 25-minute prelude and intro to beg the case. Approval was given to them in just 20 minutes. Immediately after the vote, there was exhilaration in the room. And relief. “I feel like I just gave birth,” said Silva, just after the vote passed. Then, after a bit of composure, he said, fittingly and simply, “Outstanding.”