Frozen Groundbreaking Held

by Lynne Ober

Selectmen, School Board, Superintendent, Building Committee Chairman, and Project Manager pose with shovels.

Windham School Board decided to hold two groundbreaking ceremonies for the new high school.  One was held last Saturday, and the other will be held in the spring when the weather is better.  “We plan to invite the entire town to the official groundbreaking ceremony,” said School Board Chairman Bruce Anderson, “but we decided to have a small groundbreaking with selectmen before that.”  Anderson told the audience that safety issues on the site as well as the freezing temperatures played a role in deciding to hold the second and larger groundbreaking later.

With frosty temperatures and chilling winds swirling around selectmen, administration, Building Committee members, Superintendent Dr. Elaine Cutler and representatives from Harvey Construction Company, a small groundbreaking was held last Saturday.

Anderson welcomed everyone.  School board members tried to shovel dirt in the frozen ground and happy quips filled the air before the ceremony began.

Reviewing the six-year planning history of the high school, including failed Co-op votes, Anderson told the assembled audience that building a new high school is both a daunting task and a tremendous opportunity.  “Windham High School [WHS] gives the residents of Windham the opportunity to be autonomous in educating our high school students,” he said, noting that “our students will no longer be controlled by the school board, budget committee, or voters of another town.  We, the citizens of Windham, will design the education our children receive to make them successful and productive members of society.”

Anderson thanked and recognized more than 100 Windham residents who helped in developing Windham High School.  “We have been truly blessed with an array of talent in our own town.”  Anderson explained that volunteers had worked diligently to define the curriculum and programs for athletics, music,and the arts, as well as extracurricular activities.  There’s a group working on a transition plan for students currently attending Salem High School and a committee who will communicate news throughout the community.

Then he turned to town boards.  Recognizing the many meetings that the school board has held with numerous town boards, Anderson thanked Selectmen, the Historic Commission, the Conservation Commission, and the Planning Board.  He spoke of collaboration, cooperation and friendships that have developed. 

Turning his attention to the high school, he talked about the “premier education” that students who attend WHS will receive.  “WHS will strive to make all of its graduates life-long learners, prepared to keep pace with our rapidly changing world.”

Anderson, however, also sees that WHS will play an important role in the community as a community center.  “With its education areas, media center, athletic facilities, music, art and TV studios, and auditorium, it will provide opportunities for education, exploration, and personal growth for learners of all ages.  As a Center of Community Activity, WHS will further foster the spirit of collaboration and cooperation it teaches in its curriculum and that was necessary for its design and construction.”

WHS will have a kitchen, the only Windham school to have one, and it will have a generator.  In times of need, it can be used as an emergency shelter for the community.

“As each member of the board takes a shovel of dirt from the ground, they do it, not only for our students, but for all of you that have worked with us on committees; those of you who have collaborated with us on other town boards; and everyone else who has helped in countless ways to make WHS a reality,” he concluded.

School board members ceremoniously dug in the one area that was not frozen before climbing back into warm vehicles.

Digging in the dirt.

Fire Station to be on Ballot

by Lynne Ober

Proposed first and second floor plans.

After years of planning, a new central fire station will finally be on Pelham’s March Ballot.

“We knew we were going to out grow the current facility over 10 years ago and the Planning Board agreed with the need about eight years ago and enacted an impact fee to help keep up with the life safety infrastructure, particularly with the Fire Station,” remarked Board of Selectmen Chairman Victor Danevich.

With growth in the community, the fire department added equipment, but it has been years since that equipment could be parked inside or maintained inside the existing fire station.

“Mother nature is taking her toll on our equipment when stored outside, significantly shortening the life on expensive equipment,” said Danevich.  A look at repairs for equipment sitting outside will support this fact.

A Fire Station Building Committee was established more than three years ago.  This committee consisted of citizen members, professional firefighters, as well as citizens who had construction experience.  Before former Fire Chief Dave Fisher retired, the committee had finished its work and established needed priorities for the fire department and for the town.

Everyone agreed that a new central fire station was the top priority.  However, initial estimates for a new central fire station were scary to taxpayers.  Those estimates, made during the construction boom years put the price tag between $15 and $20 million.

Proposed entrance from Village Green Drive.

The building committee worked diligently to get the floor plan down to the bare essentials, and cost down to a not-to-exceed number of $7.3 million.

“We believe through a competitive bid process, we will be able to get the price even lower,” said Danevich.

Fire Chief Michael Walker concurs that the competitive bid process may lower the price.  “We are proposing to use a methodology that is used with great success in the civilian sector to lower construction costs, but not used as much in municipalities because voters want a set price.”

Long time residents of Pelham remember the current station was built for an on-call fire department.  If a fire happened, calls went out and staff came in.  Today the picture is much different.  The fire department has evolved through the growing needs of the town, to be manned 7 x 24 x 365 days. 

“Additional services currently provided to residents include hazmat, special ops, advanced life services, advanced onsite training, and many other post 9/11 event services including a special command center,” stated Danevich.  “None of these services existed when it was an on-call department and today all of these additional services are all housed in the existing station.”

The proposed new fire station will have six large bays that will house all existing equipment and provide some growth for the future.  In addition there is a maintenance bay where repairs can be done in a safe environment.  There’s adequate, but not luxurious space to house all services currently provided by the fire department.  Administrative office space has been allocated and a large training room that could be used as a command center during a crisis or a town meeting room during non-crisis time is also available and easily accessible after hours.

The much smaller second floor will have space for firefighters.  It will have a small kitchen area, a day room area, and space for the shift commander to work.

“It's a good plan because it was formulated by volunteer citizens and fire professionals using the services of an established architect familiar with regional fire station requirements,” stated Selectman Ed Gleason.  “The plan not only accommodates current pressing needs, but should provide adequate facilities for the next 20 years or more.”

According to Gleason, “the plan addresses all current Federal, State, and Local Codes, and consolidates diverse fire department resources into a centralized location which should facilitate response time and result in increased operational and financial efficiency.”

One added benefit to the town is shortened response time.  With the equipment inside and warm, it will start easier and be ready faster.  Selectmen anticipate that a number of homeowners will see their fire insurance premiums decrease.

But there are other benefits to the town according to Gleason.

  • The bond market is down at the moment and interest on a bond will be less.
  • The housing market is flat which should be helpful in driving down construction costs in a competitive environment.
  • The town bond debt is low at this time.
  • The current station was not designed for a full time fire station and will continue to draw on town monetary assets to remain functional even though inadequate to current and future needs.
  • The current fire station necessitates outside storage of necessary life safety equipment which delays response time, decreases operational life and increases expenditures and could subject the town to legal liability should failure to respond adequately become an issue.

All of the Selectmen were concerned about the on-going cost of keeping an old, inadequate building in service.  Tax dollars fund repairs.  Even with a new fire station proposed, the town cannot afford to abandon the old station and must keep it in a usable condition.

Danevich spoke for the board when he commented Pelham is committed to safe working conditions for all employees.  Many aspects of the current station are undersized.  For example, there’s no straight or clear path to equipment; there is inadequate ventilation; combined with simple problems like poor drainage of water/snow on the floor, which lead to potential hazards when the alarm rings.”

Just like old garages that would safely house cars of the time, but can’t be used for newer larger cars, fire trucks have gotten bigger and existing bay openings cause a problem.  Modern fire trucks are wider, longer, and higher than years past.  Equipment often must be pulled out to get to other pieces of equipment since they touch back to back, side to side and barely clear the doors when exiting for a call.

Proposed entrance from Marsh Road.

Selectmen unanimously supported a warrant article for a not to exceed price of $7.3 million.  There was discussion that already $400,000 worth of impact fees was available to offset the costs of the bond and more impact fees are expected over the life of the project.  Using impact fees and a not-to-exceed price of $7.3 million, the town would need to bond $6.9 million even if the overall price could not be lowered.

The bottom line is that the fire department has very pressing needs, but Selectmen recognized it really comes down to the safety of every resident in Pelham.

Speaking for the board, Danevich concluded, “It comes down to your piece of mind in your time of need.  Whether it’s a working fire, chest pain, an asthma attack, or other medical emergency, these are our first responders.  I personally want the peace of mind knowing they are on the way when I call, with equipment they need to do the job, and that they get there as fast as possible in my time of need.”

Budget Committee Cuts Maintenance Dollars

by Lynne Ober

The role of budget committees is to determine whether an expenditure is prudent or not.  Legally they have no role in policy discussions, such as whether Pelham should have a four-school model or a three-school model, but they have a strong role in determining how tax dollars are being spent and if they are being spent wisely.

Unfortunately that responsibility is a double-edged sword as any Budget Committee member can tell you because the biggest portion of any budget is frequently determined by contractual requirements.  If voters pass a union contract, for example, then salaries, benefits and working conditions may not be changed by the budget committee.  That leaves a small piece of the budget that is really under the Budget Committee’s control.

Regrettably building maintenance is not a contractual requirement and again this year as they have for a number of years, the Pelham Budget Committee cut maintenance dollars. 

“They cut the dollars during the budget review and told us to come back with a plan for how to spend the dollars,” said Business Administrator Brian Gallagher.  “We did, but it didn’t help.  The committee was presented with suggested repairs with a schedule for each school listing items to consider in advance of the night for reconsideration and their final vote.  The dollars remain cut out of the budget.”

Gallagher talked about the difficulty of knowing exactly how the dollars would be spent because the board budgets in the fall of 2006 for maintenance that will need to be done in 2008.  “Could I have predicted months ago that one of Windham schools would have a pipe break during the recent ice storm?” asked Gallagher.  “Of course not, but it happened and I needed maintenance money to fix it.  That happens in your home as well as in Pelham schools.”

The school board, working with administration, developed a plan for the maintenance dollars and presented it to the Budget Committee at reconsideration night.

“Our words fell on deaf ears, and the dollars remained cut from the budget,” stated Gallagher.

The plan, as presented, outlined the projects that would be completed as well as listed a number of preventive maintenance projects for each school.  “Every year we have no money for preventative maintenance and it is a worry,” said Gallagher, who characterized the Budget Committee cuts as a “disservice to the taxpayers of Pelham.”  “Who among us doesn’t do some preventive maintenance on our homes – clean our furnaces or seal our windows against winter drafts,” Gallagher wondered.

At Pelham Elementary School, the budget committee cut $11,000 from the maintenance budget.  The board submitted the following plan to support the need for those dollars:

  • Provide much needed air conditioning to the computer room - $11,000
  • Paint exterior doors - $1,500
  • Repair exterior lighting - $1,000
  • Add additional exterior lighting to the front of building - $1,000
  • Replace covering for the old well opening - $500.

Those projects totaled $16,000.  No dollars were restored to the maintenance line by the Budget Committee.

At Pelham Memorial School $25,000 was cut from the maintenance budget.  The board wanted to begin a phased upgrade of the electrical system and would use these funds to begin the work.  A number of other maintenance items need to be done, but are not currently funded.  These are:

  • Paint boys’ gym - $2,000.  This does not include labor costs, but does include all materials.
  • Replace non-ADA compliant gym doors - $2,500
  • Replace bad ballasts in fluorescent lights in building - $1,000
  • Replace failing shower valves in the locker rooms using rebuild kits - $500
  • Repair air lines for heating system which will make the system more efficient - $500

The total requested dollars to complete these projects would be $39,000.  No monies were restored by the budget committee.

The situation at Pelham High School is even more dire as little maintenance has been done for a number of years.  With the life safety dollars put back into the budget, there are still a plethora of maintenance projects that need to be completed.  The school board presented this list to the budget committee:

  • Replace the old, small main office phone system - $6,800
  • Clean the ducts - $36,761
  • Locker repairs - $2,000
  • Repair / replace building windows - $8,000
  • Replace ceiling tiles - $10,000
  • Repair front side walk - $1,000
  • Replace the old generator - $8,000 - $10,000
  • Repair the building roof and fascia - $5,000 - $8,000
  • Add exterior lighting - $8,000 - $10,000

The total for these repairs is between $85,561 and $92,561.  Instead of funding these projects, the budget committee cut $29,700 from the maintenance budget.

“All buildings have to be maintained and I remain committed to spending whatever we need to make our buildings as safe as possible within the bottom line of the operational budget,” said Gallagher.  “Accidents happen, such as broken windows and items break, but our funds are always cut.  I can’t emphasize enough that the budget committee is not serving the needs of the taxpayers very well when they do this.”

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