Tomorrow East Pembroke Fire District voters will decide whether to approve a proposal to build a new fire hall. That means spending taxpayers' money and an increase in taxes, but Fire District Commissioner Bill Lawrence says it is absolutely necessary to continue providing essential service the 5,500 residents in the 100 square miles of its coverage area.
The existing fire hall has served citizens well for more than 80 years. But it is rife with structural problems, according to code inspectors and engineers, who deem it insufficient for its current use.
The proposed fire hall would sit on land purchased by the district more than a decade ago that is a little bit east of the current location. The building would be 11,128 square feet and cost $3 million.
It would contain not only more room for existing fire trucks, but rooms for hose drying, decontamination and air packs. Lawrence describes the proposed building as basic, "by no means a castle."
For a district that has traditionally held the line on tax increases, the proposal might make some property owners wince. The tax assessment would go up from the current $1.10 per $1,000 of assessed value to a maximum of $1.98.
But that price factors in future inflation, new trucks, ongoing maintenance and other expenses.
"There won't be another tax rate increase for 20 years," Lawrence said.
The district, Lawrence said, has always tried to keep taxes down, even while always paying cash for new trucks and keeping its annual budget at $150,000 or less.
Now the district faces a situation where the fire hall must be replaced, but there's not enough money in the bank to cover all of the costs.
"Our feeling was to let the people keep their money," Lawrence said. "We've been asked, 'why didn't you increase the tax rate right along?' But we felt it was better to let people keep their money."
The former rec hall for the department sits under three bays that were built in the 1970s. The floor was designed to support only 14,000 pounds. The current trucks occupying those three bays weigh more than 45,000 pounds.
The 1930s era portion of the structure was designed to support only 8,000 pounds and it currently contains a 12,000-pound rescue truck.
Firefighting has changed a lot since the 1930s. Trucks have gotten bigger and the state has implemented ever more stringent and costly regulations.
For example, new turnout gear for interior firefighters must be purchased every 10 years, at a cost of $3,500. New air packs must be purchased every 15 years and cost $6,500 each. The state requires all tires on fire trucks be replaced every 10 years, whether the tires are worn or not.
Recently, more and more residents have been putting steel roofs on their homes and barns. That presents a new firefighting challenge because the roofs are harder to access -- especially in frosty or wet whether -- to ventilate a fire (a key firefighting strategy).
The increase in steel roofs means the district needs to buy a new ladder truck at a cost of $675,000.
The current fire hall is owned by the East Pembroke Fire Department and Lawrence said fire district officials feel it would be better for the district to own the fire hall. Building a new one will give the district the chance to correct that historic anomaly.
The fire department would then sell the current hall.
The department goes out on nearly 300 calls a year and currently has 31 volunteer firefighters. The district projects growth in the area that will mean 400 calls annually by 2034 and the department will need 55 volunteers to operate.
There simply isn't room in the current building to upgrade it enough to accomodate that growth. But even just upgrading the electrical, the structural, the mechanical and making it handicapped accessible (which would be required under federal law) would cost nearly $1 million.
The public can vote at the fire station located at 2623 W. Main Road, East Pembroke. Polls will be open July 29 from 6 to 9 p.m.
For more information, download this flyer (pdf).