WILLIAMSTOWN -- The umbrella of the Public Safety Building Study Committee has expanded to include the nonprofit Village Ambulance Service and potentially the offices of the Forest Warden, Dog Officer and Inspector of Animals.
In July, the group's efforts to begin investigating the possibility of a joint police-fire station drew the attention of Dr. Edwin Stuebner, a member of the Village Ambulance board of directors, who requested of the selectmen on July 22 that the ambulance service be granted representation on the committee. General manager Shawn Godfrey will represent the service.
The current ambulance facility, behind the fire station on Water Street, was acquired as a gift from Williams College during the college's bicentennial celebration in 1993. It was an upgrade from the former site (now Ron's Auto on Route 2), but a growing crew and the acquisition of a fourth ambulance has led the board to begin evaluating its own need for a larger facility.
The now six-member study committee was formed earlier this year in response to the police department's decades-long need for a bigger station. The police department operates out of Town Hall, which is the former Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house. Due to a lack of space, most of its rooms serve multiple, often conflicting purposes.
John Notsely, chairman
In addition to Notsley and Godfrey, the committee includes Sgt. Scott McGowan of the Williamstown Police Department; Dan Gendron and Andrew Hogeland of the Finance Committee; Ann McCallum, chair of the Planning Board; and Selectwoman Jane Patton, who is also serving as chair.
Unlike the police and fire stations, Village Ambulance is a private, nonprofit service, which adds another layer of complexity to the group (already the fire and police departments represent two separate governments). If the group chooses to hire a consultant, town funds would only be available for a police station study.
In 2012 the town allocated $143,295 for a police station design and engineering study, and another $160,000 last May for a site location study, architectural and engineering services, and for "the Board of Selectmen to negotiate the acquisition of a suitable site as defined by the study".
One question the committee addressed on July 29 was whether Village Ambulance's mission as a private company would mesh with the public nature of the police and fire departments. According to Godfrey, only about 40 percent of the service's revenue comes from emergency calls. The rest comes from private transactions with hospitals, nursing homes and other clients.
Village Ambulance serves Hancock, New Ashford, and Southern Vermont, Godfrey said, but a good portion of the private transfers they do are for Williamstown residents. He also said that every call needs to meet a medical needs assessment in order for Village Ambulance to get paid.
Godfrey mentioned a period of financial difficulty and revitalization that involved a criminal investigation, but did not provide further details. McGowan, who is familiar with the investigation, said at the meeting that it did not involve patient care or any current employees.
"We are not in jeopardy of closing at this point," Godfrey said. "The first thing on my agenda was to rejuvinate this service and make it viable ... I'd say we're doing well."
At the committee's first meeting, on June 25, McGowan had argued that addressing the needs of two separate governments would threaten the long-awaited efforts to build a new police station. On July 29 he again pointed to the danger of too many considerations bringing the efforts to a halt.
He said he had no doubt that trying to include three separate entities at three different phases in the process would be counterproductive.
"The Fire District is six years ahead of the town of Williamstown, the town of Williamstown is in the infancy stages of moving our own project forward, and Village Ambulance has discussed this over coffee," he said. "We are just going to grind this thing to a halt."
But surprisingly, a fourth department also entered the mix. The town's Forest Warden, who handles all outdoor fires, currently has no office or dedicated storage facility. Williamstown's Forest Warden is Richard Daniels, who stores the department's three firefighting vehicles in his driveway.
McGowan said Chief of Police Kyle Johnson, who has a background in construction and has drawn preliminary plans for a new police station, "does not believe that a structure to house the forest warden's equipment on any potential police department site would grow our building at a significant rate."
McGowan added that being a common department, much of the training needs of the Forest Warden's department would be in concert with those of both the police and fire departments, and could potentially occur in the same space.
Two other small but critical departments that could be incorporated into the committee's work are those of the Dog Officer and Inspector of Animals. In Williamstown, Jackie Lemieux serves both roles, which fall under the umbrella of Inspection Services.
"The union is prepared in the very near future to engage the town in discussions about consolidating that into the Police Department under public safety," McGowan said. "The union would like to see, at minimum, the animal control officer come under the public safety umbrella."
A discussion of the potential sites for a police station opened up some possibilities for how the police, fire and forest warden departments and the ambulance service could all be given the space they need.
McCallum had created several basic site plans, which revealed that the most suitable sites (in terms of space requirements) for a police station would likely be the property next to Harsch Associates on Route 2, the site of Dave's Auto on North Hoosac Road, the Financial Center on Route 2 (which recently went on the market), and a site near the Clark Art Institute on South Main Street.
McGowan proposed a scenario where the fire and police departments build on two separate sites, "Village Ambulance upgrades to the old Fire District property, and the Forest Warden's moves into Village Ambulance's old property." But there was no one site he thought could accommodate all four departments.
Godfrey had said earlier that moving into the fire station, in addition to keeping the current ambulance building, would likely provide Village Ambulance with the additional space it requires.