Our Views: Don't race to build fire station

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Saturday, March 8, 2014

New Janesville City Manager Mark Freitag wants the city council to indicate at Monday's meeting which of two Milton Avenue layouts it prefers for a new Fire Station No. 1.

What's the rush? After all, the city has kicked around plans to replace the now 57-year-old central station for two decades. It's good to see some council members urging longer deliberations—if not rethinking that spot altogether.

New cost estimates raise concerns and questions, especially among residents who believe an $8 million bus garage now under construction is extravagant. The city announced last month that the council voted 6-1 in closed session last fall to build the fire station at its current location but expand the site by acquiring neighboring properties. New plans that include buying and demolishing homes have pushed the price tag to between $9 million and $9.5 million instead of the previous range of $6.2 million to $7.4 million.

The council is supposed to consider two options Monday. Option 1 would need seven neighboring properties. Option 2 would take 12. Costs of acquiring and removing homes would be less in Option 1. Because the station under that option would be built partly where the current building sits, however, crews and equipment would be relocated during construction, negating those savings.

The city did itself no favors with a vague letter to station neighbors. It's appalling that some recipients didn't understand they would lose their homes until they read a Gazette story Feb. 26. The letter mentioned a meeting they could attend but gave no location. To its credit, however, the city has rarely used eminent domain to force owners out and clear paths for public projects. Instead, it has negotiated buyouts that those being relocated accepted. If it proceeds with this site, it should follow that precedent here.

The city explored nine possible sites before the council agreed that the current location is the best spot for response times. The station need not be extravagant. The city, however, should make sure it doesn't end up like homeowners who buy a house because it's affordable only to find five years later that they've outgrown it and wish they had bought a bigger one.

Councilman Matt Kealy voted against the plan because the new cost alarmed him at a time when the city struggles to pay for street repairs. He notes city growth isn't central but to the north and wonders if the station always will be ideally positioned. He questions whether it needs eight bays—double the current number—and if the city has analyzed its stations completely.

The council should consider all these concerns instead of moving hastily.

The second option would require buying a Second Empire home in the Conrad Cottages neighborhood. The house is vacant, and the city hasn't gotten permission to get inside. A neighbor suggests that mold was a problem even before it became vacant. Moving the house  would detract from its historic value, but determining if the house could and should be saved is worth the effort.

Fire Chief Jim Jensen opposes building the new station with dormitory space for firefighters on a second floor. That would reduce the building's footprint but add to response times. But how much? Also, must this station house Rock County's hazardous materials vehicle, or would it be better located at a station closer to the Interstate?

At every step, the city must justify for residents the size and cost of the central station and the need to house training facilities there. Sure, the station should be big enough to meet current and future needs, but given the soaring price, it also must be as cost-effective as possible.

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