The Examiner

New Castle Fire Commissioners Weigh Reducing Firehouse Project Scope

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New Castle Fire District No. 1 commissioners are considering a reduction in the scope of proposed work to renovate and expand the King Street firehouse, fearing escalating costs and interest rates could sink a proposition based on the original plan.

Last week the Board of Fire Commissioners was close to reaching consensus to move ahead with the addition that would provide enough room for today’s larger apparatus, eliminate safety concerns for firefighters and forego the renovation of the original 1954 structure and the 1979 wing.

In December, the fire district’s architect, Mitchell Associates Architects, had put together an estimate of $16,992,906 for the entire project, but over the past five months inflation and rising interest rates have conspired to increase the price tag.

Commissioner Brian Murphy said those factors could add another $1 million to the work, a cost that would likely be too steep to gain approval from district voters.

“It’s now $18 million, and as far as I’m concerned, I don’t see $18 million being passed in a referendum or anything,” Murphy said. “I think what we really need to think about is what we really need. What we really need is the addition. We don’t need to do anything to these (existing) buildings. We need the three bays; we need the addition and we now need to attach it to the ’79 building so there’s access throughout the whole building. But we certainly need the addition and we need this addition not now, but we needed it yesterday.”

The board has discussed scheduling a fall referendum but no firm date had been settled upon.

Board Chairman Terence Hoey said he agreed with Murphy that the work likely needs to be scaled back. About a month after the commissioners were given the nearly $17 million estimate for the project by the architect, inflation, interest rates and gas prices began skyrocketing and the war in Ukraine has also added to those pressures, he said.

Hoey said he doesn’t know if there is appetite among the public for the expense, which is disappointing because most of the project is desperately needed.

“We’re within one week of getting the site plan done,” Hoey said. “(The project) has to be done; it should have been done a long time ago.

Commissioner Christopher Weddle said that by building the addition there would be ample room for the modern fire trucks and reduced risk to firefighters, including risk caused by insufficient space between the vehicles. It would also allow the district to move the items it has in storage at the old Senter Street firehouse to the King Street location, he said.

Among the items the district would be giving up would be the bunk rooms and the fitness center, but with a larger meeting room in an expanded King Street firehouse, the fitness center could be moved from Senter Street.

As unappetizing as doing the work piecemeal might be, trimming the size of the bond may be necessary, Weddle said.

“I’ve talked to nobody that is in favor of this project who thinks it will pass at $17 million,” Weddle said.

By next month, commissioners hope to settle on a revised scope and how much that would trim costs.

Hoey said since the architect’s December estimate, the interest rate on borrowing has already gone up a quarter-point with more hikes likely to come.

He called on the board to put out bids for a public relations and communications specialist to help the board explain the need to the public for an expanded firehouse.

“We need the residents of this fire district to know that we’ve been working very, very hard on this project,” Hoey said, “and just because the vote may be in the latter part of this year, it doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of work that needs to be done between now and then.”

In 2016, a referendum to expand the firehouse and purchase the adjacent land was resoundingly defeated by voters by about a 6-to-1 margin.

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