Our Views: Consider future above extravagance in new Janesville fire station

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Friday, January 31, 2014

Janesville Fire Chief Jim Jensen is a reasonable man. So it's no surprise that he makes a reasonable case for building a new central fire station that meets not just today's needs but tomorrow's and includes training facilities and administrative offices.

He senses frustrations from fiscal conservatives. Some residents perceive the new bus garage rising on North Parker Drive at Black Bridge Road as a “Taj Mahal.” The garage is being built to hold 16 buses but designed to expand to house 30 if need be. It’s being fortified in case explosive compressed natural gas fuels future buses. Exterior bricks will help make it look modern rather than industrial.

The bus garage, including land and architectural and engineering fees, will cost about $8 million. That compares to plans to spend between $6.2 million and $7.4 million on a fire station. Sure, the federal government is paying more than 80 percent of bus garage costs, but as the federal deficit mushrooms, critics note it's all tax money.

The new fire station will replace Station No. 1, which is located on Milton Avenue near Milwaukee Street. Station No. 1 opened 57 years ago, when fire trucks were half the size of today's. Firefighters shuffle equipment in four bays. That risks adding to response times. The roof and windows leak, and employee quarters are inadequate.

The site is about two-thirds of an acre, and the new one ideally would encompass two acres. Jensen wants the station to house eight bays, and some still would hold at least two vehicles. The city has explored expanding at the current site and spots near Adams Elementary School and Craig High School. The council recently, in closed session, approved a still-undisclosed site, and the design is being redrawn.

As a home builder, Councilman Douglas Marklein has a contractor's perspective for the fine line between wastefulness and building for future needs.

Still, he said at a recent meeting, “I don't want this to be a palace. It's not a palace. It's a fire station. It's a working building. I don't think it needs to be really extravagant.”

Fair enough. Jensen, in turn, sensibly suggests building a new Station No. 1 with training facilities large enough so on-duty firefighters can train and attend meetings, yet still be in a central spot so they could respond to emergencies on the city's outskirts. Besides, if firefighters had to train while off duty, the city would pay overtime.

Jensen acknowledges that administrators could be located elsewhere if that cut construction costs. But, he reasons, it would be best to house them in the new station. That way shift commanders can respond to fires and meet with the chief and deputy chief, and the top administrators are near City Hall for regular trips.

Jensen doesn't want to be remembered as the chief who cut corners and handicapped future firefighting needs.

“If we're going to build a building that's going to last 50 years, I struggle with making a decision to build a building smaller than what our needs are today in 2014,” he told reporter Marcia Nelesen in last Sunday's Gazette.

As Marklein suggests, let function trump extravagance. Still, being in the city's center, the station must be reasonably attractive.

Surveys show residents rank public safety as a city priority. Given that, officials shouldn't let flames of frustration about that bus garage shortchange current or future needs in building a new fire station the right way.

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