WILLIAMSTOWN -- The recently formed Public Safety Building Study Committee had its first meeting on June 25 to begin looking at the possibilities for a new Williamstown Police Station, and also to determine the feasibility of a joint public safety facility that could include police, fire and potentially ambulance services.
Sgt. Scott McGowan of the Williamstown Police Department, who is serving on the committee, has called the existing police station "a proverbial ticking time bomb." Although it continues to pass inspections, many feel it is only a matter of time until the station’s cramped and makeshift conditions lead to injury.
McGowan has lobbied for a new station since 2012, when he became president of the Williamstown Police Association union.
The current police department and municipal building, which the town purchased from Williams College in 1966 (it was previously the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity) was never intended for law enforcement, he said. "So I would argue that we’ve needed a building for 47 years."
Among the station’s well-documented problems are a lack of adequate facilities for training, interviewing, administration and storage. Officers often have to shuffle victims, suspects, family members and walk-ins between rooms to keep them safely isolated.
The station’s two holding cells are accessible only by descending a narrow stairway, which presents a dangerous situation, especially when arrestees are intoxicated or uncooperative. "And people have gone down those stairs," McGowan said on a recent tour highlighting the facility’s many problems. "But thank God no one has been injured."
The town finally began to address the issue in 2012 when it appropriated $143,295 for a police station design and engineering study. Last May, it appropriated an additional $160,000 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."
In February, the selectmen had begun assembling a Police Building Study Committee, but following the suggestion of several community members, the board expanded the new committee to incorporate the Fire District, whose efforts to replace its outdated 1950s fire station on Water Street began in 2006.
The PSBSC includes McGowan; John Notsley, chairman of the Prudential Committee; Ann McCallum, chairman of the Planning Board; Andrew Hogeland and Daniel Gendron of the Finance Committee; and selectwoman Jane Patton, who is also serving as chair.
By focusing on the broader subject of "public safety," the committee has the option of considering several alternatives: a police-only facility, a joint police-fire facility, or a joint police-fire-ambulance facility (although that option has not been seriously discussed).
"The one thing we cannot do because of the way the Fire District is set up - and the town is set up - is recommend a fire-only building," said Patton. "That’s under the purview of the Prudential Committee."
After announcing its plans for a new station in 2006, the Fire District commissioned an engineering study and site analysis by Maguire Associates in Boston. Those studies were completed in 2008 and the district recently placed a bid on a 3.7-acre property on Main Street owned by Kurt Lehovic.
On June 25, the PSBSC sought to determine its first steps and further clarify its goals.
"The only caution that I have is that it’s clunky," said Gendron. "And it’s clunky because there are two different elements here. We can go down the path of two-for-one, but ultimately it has to be discussed on [the Fire District’s] level," since those efforts are so well underway.
Notsley said his experience as chairman of the Prudential Committee during the fire station study could provide some guidance for the PSBSC, but he and McGowan both were concerned about the ability to achieve a joint solution within a reasonable amount of time.
Between 2006 and 2012, McGowan said, there had been no discussion in Williamstown or in the District about pursuing a shared facility. "And now that we have finally gained the traction to start putting these projects forward - money is being appropriated - certainly our concern at this point is if you have two governments, that can present a problem," he said.
"I’m not saying that can’t be done, but I am significantly concerned that any joint venture with the district right now Š could certainly muddy the waters and grind this project to a halt and we’re going to miss this window of opportunity where I think the community strongly supports this."
The Police Department has compiled a list of 17 potential sites for a new police station - including the site of the former Wild Amber Grille on North Street and the lot adjacent to Harsch Associates on Route 2 - but so far the discussion of a shared facility has centered on the Lehovic site.
Notsley said the Fire District spent nearly four and a half years trying to find what he believed was the best site for a new fire station. "So I can see where the PD is coming from," he said. "We’re well along."
The town will need to vote before the Prudential Committee can purchase the land, he said, "But we’re still light years ahead of what this study committee is trying to do." While hoping to be able to offer some guidance based on his own experience, he said, he cautioned that it would likely be a long process.
"This wasn’t done overnight," he said. "We’re talking seven years we’ve been working on this problem."
The committee agreed on June 25 that its first goal should be issuing a request for proposals to gain a sense of how much space a new police station would require, and whether the Lehovic property would be adequate to meet the needs of both facilities.
Notsley said that by the end of July the Prudential Committee should know the results of a topographical survey indicating how much of the Lehovic property can be developed. According to the earlier study by Maguire, the new fire station will need 1.8 acres of land.
McCallum also agreed to create preliminary plans that will provide a general figure for dealing with space requirements for a new facility and allow the committee to continue exploring the possibility of both a separate police station and a shared facility while also issuing a request for proposals.