WHITMAN – The Capital Committee, meeting remotely on Thursday, Jan. 13, voted to recommend the two articles under its purview at the Monday, Jan. 31 special Town Meeting.
Chairman David Codero said Capital items were the only business on the agenda, and were appearing for the first time so his intent was for the committee to discuss them and brainstorm on vetting the requests.
Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman sent committee members the warrant special Town Meeting, suggesting the committee review the two articles — $60,000 for public safety ballistic vests under Article 2 and Article 7 seeking $1,098,100 to create shovel-ready architectural drawings of a new DPW building.
The committee voted 8-0-1 (Codero abstaining) to recommend the Town Meeting vote to approve the ballistic vests, and votes recommended the DPW building architect drawings by the same vote.
“The Police Department’s vests are in need of replacement and we just discovered that the Fire Department vests are in need of replacement, that they are past their warranty,” Heineman said, adding that the amount sought out of free cash would rectify that.
“If I’m not mistaken they have an expiration date and they are either at or past that,” committee member Fred Small said.
Heineman said Fire Department vests’ warranty has expired, rather than a situation of an expiration date per se.
“I certainly feel like we don’t want to take any chances with that and when the warranty’s out, we should replace them,” Heineman said. “If a firefighter is injured and that vest was out of warranty, I don’t think that’s acceptable.”
Small indicated for some people expiration dates might seem flexible, but agreed with Heineman.
“Could we squeeze another year out or two because it’s out of warranty but not ‘expired?’ Sure. But, on balance, I don’t think that’s an acceptable [decision].”
“You shouldn’t play with people’s lives,” Small said.
“Exactly,” Heineman replied.
Member Joshua McNeil also said the town takes on a big liability risk if the vests are not replaced.
“It’s also just the right thing to do, as far as I’m concerned,” Heineman said.
Fire department protective vests contain ceramic material, and are heavier, but used less frequently, according to Heieman who added that 26 Fire Department vests and 33 Police Department vests in total are being sought.
“It’s less of a firefighter issue and more of an EMT issue,” he said, noting that some overdose calls might warrant their use.
Small asked if, going forward, the chiefs could begin asking for replacements a little early so the town could start staggering the amounts over more than one budget year. While arguing that it is an appropriate capital expense, that could be suggested. Any vests that have not exceeded warranty or expiration date would be kept in use because to do otherwise would be wasteful.
Member Justin Casanova-Davis agreed with Heineman’s suggestion that in the long-term consideration could be to stagger purchases could move the request to the operating budget.
“I don’t want to put strain on there, but if it’s a regular recurring item – stagger it in the operating budget,” he said.
Codero, however, asked if a lot of fire equipment, including engines, also come with a warranty – that often expire when the equipment is still in use.
“Based on the same logic that the fire chief is providing, every piece of equipment they’re using that isn’t warranteed, isn’t safe,” he said. “That’s what I’m hearing.”
Heineman disagreed because, unlike the vests, a vehicle being out of warranty is not an imminent threat to the safety of that firefighter.
Small, who works in the insurance business, said vehicle warranty’s are protection from any defect in the parts or workmanship when it is created.
“When you’re wearing a vest, we may be calling it a warranty, it’s more of a performance guarantee under certain circumstances for X amount of time,” he said. “I think that’s a big differential.”
Chemicals used to make bullet-proof vests effective do break down.
“It would be easier to rubber-stamp this if the word ‘expiration’ was inserted instead of ‘warranty,’” Esson said.
Heineman said, that to his understanding, there is no expiration date in relation to vests. The term the manufacturer uses is “warranty.” During the meeting, Small researched bullet-proof fire vests on the Internet and reported that while both terms are used by manufacturers, the important consideration is how fibers break down over time and is the main reason the warranty stops. The terms, Small said, are used interchangably.
McNeil also said a $60,000 price tag for vests is much less than the potential financial implications for the town should someone be killed because the vest was actually expired.
“Yes, this is a financial piece, but more than that … it’s the right thing to do,” Heineman said.
“We are in desperate need for a DPW building that is safe and sanitary for the employees and that allows them to do the work that they need to do to service the town,” Heineman said.
He noted the several past attempts to do that over recent years.
A feasibility study completed and peer-reviewed late last year put the minimum cost of a new building at just under $11 million at the current location. Selectmen decided to propose at Town Meeting the expenditure of 10 percent of that figure for architectural plans. Selectmen also established a DPW Building Committee to oversee procurement and oversight of the plans and building project. The funding sources are available from current funds, Heineman said of the plan funds – $713,000 from water and sewer retained earnings based on the estimated space those employees would use in the new building, $234,335 from free cash and remaining monies from the capital stabilization fund, which requires a two-thirds Town Meeting use to be included.
“It is also a gauge for how the town feels about moving forward with this needed project,” he said.
“That’s pretty strategic,” Casanova-Davis said of the two-thirds vote requirement. He asked if it was considered to put the whole project price before Town Meeting to take advantage of low interest rates.
Selectman Justin Evans, who also serves on the Capital committee, said there was a lengthy discussion between Selectmen and the DPW Commissioners on how to proceed with the project.
“The DPW Commissioners initially wanted to fund the whole project now,” Evans said. “The Selectmen had some concerns that it just wasn’t ready to ask to borrow that large amount of money for a big capital project. … We thought this was the better path to take.”
Codero asked if there was a reason why the feasibility report was not forwarded to the Capital Committee. He asked department heads to send project requests by October and none were received although all departments had told him there would be no problem.
“I don’t know if it’s a blatant disregard of the will of the people or the department heads just don’t care or they’re incompetent,” he said. “I don’t know.” He said he was glad Selectmen formed a building committee.
Casanova-Davis also said he would like to see the feasibility study, but said he would vote for it.
Building Inspector Robert Curran said, with every passing month, the cost will go up and urged the committee to vote to recommend the article.
Small noted that, once the money is voted, it will be under the complete control of the building committee. That committee was formed by Selectmen Jan. 18.
McNeil asked why a new building committee was being established, when the Capital Committee has already worked on the new police station as well as renovations to both Town Hall and the fire station. Heineman said Selectmen felt a building-specific committee was preferable.
Don Esson was elected chair as the committee, effective at the next meeting – with some new additions recently appointed inspiring a reorganization – and Fred Small was elected vice chairman. Heineman was elected clerk.