By Jonathan Phelps
---- — IPSWICH — Police Chief Paul Nikas is renewing his push for $100,000 to complete a feasibility study into the possibility of building a combined police and fire station on town-owned land on Elm and South Main streets.
Selectmen rejected his proposal to bring the issue to Special Town Meeting voters last fall. A tie 2-2 vote meant the motion failed.
The proposal will be brought up again at Monday night’s selectmen meeting, but it is unclear whether the chief will get enough support from the board this time around. Several members have expressed opposition, while others say they need more time and information.
Nikas said it’s important to get the process started, even though it may take years before any construction starts. The study will determine if the site near the current police station is suitable for the proposed building. The $100,000 will help pay for an architect, structural engineering, an environmental study and a traffic study, among other things.
“We need a professional firm to come and either confirm it is doable or have them say, ‘No you can’t,’” he said. “If that is the case, we need to move on and find alternatives.”
The request for services will be broken up to provide the town flexibility.
“If it is found the site will not work, based on these studies, we won’t be paying for everything,” Nikas said.
The town-owned land would be the best location to reach the majority of the town’s population within a eight-minute response time, he said.
Selectman Bill Craft, who voted against the pitch, said he’s concerned that the feasibility study might be premature. However, he remains open-minded about the chief’s proposal, he said.
“I think we might be creating an expectation that can’t be met in the near future,” he said, in terms of constructing a new building. “It might be better to postpone the study.”
While saying he understands the need for the building, he said the board has a number of more pressing priorities, including a proposed $3 million override for the schools.
There is a need for new police and fire facilities, said Charles Surpitski, chairman of the Board of Selectmen and former police chief in town. He supported the plan last time around but would not disclose which way he’ll vote this time.
He said there are not a lot of options for land to build such a facility in a centralized location in town. There is certain criteria for fire response times, he said.
“Even though we might not build it in the near future, I think it is important to have the land,” he said.
Selectman Shirley Berry was absent from the vote last time, as she was recovering from a serious fall down a flight of stairs. She said she would like to spend more time reading studies on the proposal before announcing which way she’ll vote.
Two board members, Pat McNally and Nishan Mootafian, could not be reached for comment. McNally previously opposed the plan, while Mootafian supported it.
A task force working for about a year said in a report that renovations to the current buildings are not a feasible option and a combination station on the Elm and South Main streets location would be the best option for the town. The proposed building would cost an estimated $17.4 million, Nikas has previously said.
Nikas said he’s met with neighbors since the last vote, and a building committee will be appointed to help oversee the study and possible future construction.
“Their concern was mainly with the fire services,” he said, adding that there were also issues raised with parking and the World War II monument.
Nikas said the issue of replacing the town’s public safety buildings has been studied for the past 60 years. Around 15 different sites were reviewed and deemed inadequate, he said.
Part of the study will look at possible comparable sites, he said.
The police station on Elm Street needs work on its roof and the heating, electrical and plumbing systems. There is not enough room in the building for its operations or training.
The firehouse on Central Street, which is more than 100 years old, doesn’t have enough space for all the vehicles, has limited parking and no place for on-call firefighters to prepare for a fire. It was built for horse-drawn fire apparatus and was not originally intended to have on-duty firefighters living in the facility.
“There is a reason everyone on the Northeast is building public safety complexes,” Nikas said. “It is cheaper to build and operate and more environmentally friendly.”