By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — Selectmen last night began reviewing a five-year capital improvement plan that includes an $8.7 million bond to construct a new police station, but no money for fire station upgrades.
The board also a withdrew a proposal for an $800,000 sewer and water line extension on Pond Street following strong opposition from residents unhappy with footing the hook-up cost.
Although the police and fire station proposals were included in the plan Town Manager Keith Hickey presented to selectmen in June, the latest proposal only provides the fire department with money for vehicles and not stations.
Board Vice Chairman James Keller expressed support last night for construction of a public safety complex that accommodates both the police and fire departments, though there is no formal plan for such an idea.
“I won’t stop fighting for it,” he said.
Selectman Everett McBride Jr. agreed the town needs a new complex for both departments.
“I think it needs to be combined,” he said.
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.
But cutting funding for fire stations is no surprise to selectmen or fire Chief Kevin Breen as Salem strives to cope with rising costs. Breen has said fire station proposals have been debated for years, but rejected because of the cost. A West End fire station was first proposed in the 1980s, he said.
This year, it was again decided that plans for new fire stations could wait.
Selectmen received a surprise in October when they were informed that higher-than-anticipated health insurance costs meant they suddenly must cut $282,000 from a $37 million town budget they approved two months earlier.
The brunt of the cuts came in the police and fire department budgets. Each was forced to slash $35,000 from their budgets, in addition to the thousands of dollars already eliminated during selectmen’s monthlong budget review.
Breen said it would mean not fully staffing 15-member firefighter shifts, posing a risk to public safety. For 12 weeks earlier this year, budget cuts forced the department to go without a full complement of firefighters, including only 13 on some shifts, he said.
But the latest capital improvement plan includes thousands of dollars for leasing or purchasing fire department vehicles. Selectmen briefly reviewed the plan last night before deciding to consider it further at upcoming meetings.
One major expenditure no longer on the town’s expense list is $800,000 requested in a warrant article for the Pond Street sewer and water line extension — a project Hickey said would serve three to four dozen homes.
A group of neighbors led by Stillwater Circle resident Charles Albert asked the board to reconsider the project, which he said would require each of the homeowners to pay more than $10,000 to connect to the line.
The homes already have private well and septic systems, though board Chairman Patrick Hargreaves said some have failed.
“We see no meaningful impact with the installation of town sewer and water,” Albert said.
The majority of residents who attended two public meetings on the project have opposed the extension, Hargreaves said. Selectmen voted unanimously to withdraw the proposal, saying residents could propose a petition warrant article if they really wanted the project.
A petition warrant article would require signatures from at least 25 residents before going before voters in March.
Also last night, selectmen unanimously approved a lease agreement with the Greater Salem Caregivers that allows the nonprofit organization to rent space at Town Hall for $200 per month. The space was formally occupied by the state Division of Motor Vehicles.