By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — Selectmen agreed last night to begin planning for the construction of a public safety complex to house both the Police and Fire departments instead of building two new stations.
The decision came as the board reviewed millions of dollars in proposed capital improvement projects for 2014-2017. Selectman James Keller told his colleagues it would be more efficient and cost-effective to have a combined facility.
“I would rather do two buildings as one,” Keller said.
Keller briefly mentioned the idea at the board’s meeting Dec. 3, but no action was taken. Last night, the board backed Keller’s proposal and directed Town Manager Keith Hickey to start planning for the police-and-fire complex.
A committee would be formed to plan the project, and one of its first tasks would be finding a suitable site, Keller said.
“I think people are ready for a police-fire public safety (complex),” Selectman Everett McBride Jr. said.
Selectman Stephen Campbell agreed.
“I think it makes sense,” he said.
The board also received support from police Chief Paul Donovan and fire Chief Kevin Breen after Selectmen Chairman Patrick Hargreaves asked, “Can we have two departments exist in the same building?”
Although many communities have public safety complexes, the two chiefs said having the Police and Fire Departments share the same building is not as cost-effective as some people would think.
Both departments have their own specialized needs, including separate areas for training, Donovan said.
But a combined facility could be designed to serve both departments, he said.
“You can make them work,” Donovan said. “There is nothing in it I don’t think can’t be overcome.”
Both chiefs agreed the most important factor would be finding a location that didn’t increase the Fire Department’s response time to calls.
“From a fire station’s point of view, geographic location is everything,” Breen said.
Campbell said it would be ideal to use property the town already owns.
Selectman Michael Lyons suggested the town consider a 7-acre site off Lawrence Road.
Breen said another key factor in choosing a site involves the possible use of Rockingham Park as a multimillion-dollar casino if expanded gambling were approved in New Hampshire.
The decision to consider construction of a public safety complex prompted Hickey to withdraw proposals to design and build a new police station.
One proposal called for spending $75,000 in 2014 to design the station while the other allocated $8.6 million in 2016 to construct the facility.
Police and fire station proposals were included in the plan Hickey presented to selectmen in June, but the latest only provided the Fire Department with money for vehicles.
Hickey’s earlier capital improvement plan included $3.5 million for a West End fire station to be built in 2017. The proposal also called for spending $1 million in 2016 to buy land for a new central fire station, but construction costs were not included in the five-year plan.
The latest capital improvement plan includes thousands of dollars for leasing or purchasing Fire Department vehicles, drawing criticism from Campbell because of the interest costs.
“It’s the interest that will kill you,” he said.
Also last night, selectmen agreed to draft a warrant article to sell a 7.7-acre plot of town-owned land off Keewaydin Drive. The town has owned the land-locked property for about 50 years, Hickey said.