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Hopes high though push for Charlton public safety complex faces hurdles

By Rod Lee

Housed under glass at the entrance to the Charlton Police Department are symbols of days of old: boxes for Barney Miller, Dick Tracy, Kojak and CSI board games—hearkening back to once-popular crime-themed television shows.

The display carries special significance these days, as Chief Graham Maxfield, Lt. Daniel “Danny” Dowd, Officer Derek Gaylord and the remaining members of a force of about twenty wait to see if townspeople will vote to move forward with spending for a new public safety building that would in part replace a station that, though only thirty years old, is also a relic by 2020 standards.

The plan as it stands at the moment is a combined police, fire and communications center on land adjacent to the current CPD building on Masonic Home Road. The land was acquired by the town from The Overlook, as Lt. Dowd put it during a conversation also involving Officer Gaylord on January 29th, “for a song.”

There are, however, hurdles to be cleared. A low-lying portion of the acreage to the immediate left of the police station, as seen from the road, is wetlands. This means the facility would have to be built on higher ground beyond that. The stickier issue, though, is convincing residents that the $28.5 million that has already been approved for a public safety complex that would be home to both police and fire is a bargain.

It is going to be a tough sell, Lt. Dowd said, in that a major portion of the funds needed would have to come by way of a Proposition 2 ½ debt-exclusion override.

The scenario so far is as follows. At Charlton’s annual town meeting last May, voters approved the appropriation of $28.5 to construct and equip such a facility. At a special town election three months later, however, they resoundingly rejected, by a vote of 860 to 491, the idea of using taxpayer money to bankroll the project. That leaves a Charlton Public Safety Building Capital Campaign Steering Committee that is being chaired by Selectwoman Karen Spiewak tasked with generating enough dollars to lower the amount that would have to be borrowed—and thus ease the tax burden on Charlton residents.

The good news is that the initial vote was not contingent on the second vote; in other words, as Committee Co-Chair Stephen Coleman has pointed out, the $28.5 million is there and will be held in an account “until such time as there is a project.”

Mr. Coleman is well aware of the dynamics. He is also fire chief in neighboring Auburn, where a similar push is afoot for a consolidated police and fire facility.

The need in Charlton is obvious. Fire headquarters on Power Station Road is more than sixty years old and woefully inadequate. Although far newer, the police station also falls short of meeting the demands placed on it, Lt. Dowd said. “We need a new roof. The HVAC system is twenty-five years old. There are no elevators. It’s not a terrible building; the town will be able to put it to use” in some way after the CPD vacates it.

Chiming in, Officer Gaylord (formerly with the CFD) said “the town’s infrastructure has grown,” placing an additional strain on the department.

Ms. Spiewak together with Mr. Coleman, Mr. Coleman’s fellow co-chair Noreen Johnson Smith and members of the Committee are optimistic despite the scope of the work they face.

“I am very thankful for the talented and generous folks from our town who have stepped up to volunteer on this Committee,” Ms. Spiewak said. “I have no doubt this campaign will be successful. Thousands of dollars in pledges have been made already, and we’ve yet to launch the official campaign.”

Private funding sources to be pursued will include major corporate gifts, grants, “rounding-up” opportunities from businesses and an invitation to pledge donations and to name sections of the building.

Chief Maxfield said the matter will probably by brought to voters again as a ballot question “in November.” Lt. Dowd, reiterating sentiments expressed by both Chief Maxfield and Fire Capt. Rob Barton, said voters are undoubtedly suffering from “sticker shock” from a recent school override coupled with the tab for providing police and fire with a more modern base of operations.

“A lot of the cards have been dealt,” Lt. Dowd said. “If the town doesn’t get behind it now, it will be more expensive” in the long run.

“It’s all about size,” too, Lt. Dowd said. The facility Auburn is talking about will be much larger, he said.

Of the sticker shock ingredient, he said “it’s like buying a new car, until you know what you’re getting.”

Contact Rod Lee at [email protected] or 774-232-2999.