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Our Views: Research backs Janesville fire station plans

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June 7, 2014

Janesville residents are raising reasonable questions about plans to spend $9 million to build a central fire station on the same block as current Station No. 1.

City officials have reasonable answers.

On Wednesday, The Gazette's editorial board grilled five city staffers, including Fire Chief Jim Jensen, City Manager Mark Freitag and City Engineer Mike Payne. They're smart and earnest and have thoughtful answers.

Critics have been vocal since the city council's November vote in closed session to stick with the current location. That plan will clear 12 homes—taking them by eminent domain if necessary. Affected residents didn't know they would lose their homes until months later. The secrecy threw gas on the fire of anger.

Some residents suggest the city could renovate and expand the station for less money. Some believe other locations are suitable. Still others wonder why firefighters can't switch from 24-hour shifts to 40-hour weeks and eliminate the living quarters.

The city spent more than two decades coming to this decision. It has delayed repairs so long that the current central station is almost uninhabitable, Jensen said. He believes patching it up would be a huge waste of tax money.

The station is inefficient for many reasons. One of them is that some bays must house multiple vehicles. That caused a two-minute delay for a tanker to reach a March fire, Jensen pointed out. Payne reasonably argues that renovation and expansion would be a Band Aid, serving the city for a decade or two, and then construction would cost much more.

The city examined all possible locations. Some are too small given the need to house specialized equipment in a drive-through central station. The city used technology to analyze response times. Given locations of the four satellite stations, no other spot was as efficient.

Jensen says his numbers  show a move from 24-hour shifts to a more standard schedule would cost nearly $2 million a year. We'd like to see more research, given that the change could save $2 million in construction costs by eliminating the need for living quarters.

Freitag, who started here just six months ago, is impressed with the time, energy and research the city invested in this decision.

“I'm confident that this team has looked at things as thoroughly as we can,” he said.

The city council—our elected representatives—weighed the evidence and told the administration to proceed with the new station after a solid vote of 6-1. While resident Billy McCoy hopes his petition will somehow get the city to reverse course, Freitag's staff is working on designs and property purchases. That makes sense. Delay because you fear the council might change its mind, and project costs climb.

Must the city spend $9 million, of which $6.5 million would be for the building and the rest for plans and land purchases and related costs? Maybe not. Freitag appointed a committee of city staffers and residents to oversee architectural specifics. Its meetings will be open to the public.

The committee should ensure that the station will serve the city for at least 50 years and that designs are appropriate for the neighborhood and a key downtown gateway. Not all features and finishes, however, must have top-dollar materials.

Many residents argue the $8 million bus garage rising on Parker Drive is excessive. Given anger over that and a possible referendum to fund street repairs, it's imperative that the committee balance reasonable quality against reasonable cost.

However, as Jensen suggests: “I know it's expensive, but at some point, we just have to say, 'Let's get it done.'”

Gazette editorials express the views of the newspaper's editorial board. Readers are encouraged to comment on editorials through letters to the editor.

 



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