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May 07

Springfield Republican Article

Posted on May 7, 2015 at 8:11 AM by Jeffrey Rudinski

By Stephanie Barry |
on May 02, 2015 at 2:14 PM, updated May 02, 2015 at 4:14 PM

WILBRAHAM - The small, white Wilbraham police station on Main Street may look quaint and pretty enough from the outside, but from the inside ...

To be honest - by modern municipal facilities standards - it's kind of a cramped, smelly, water-logged dump.

With two town votes coming up to green-light a new, $8 million police station on Boston Road, voters need only take a tour of the current station to reject the notion that the stewards of public safety here are prima donnas looking for fancy digs.

Twenty-six hardworking officers who make hundreds of arrests a year, plus more civilian and dispatching staff, are crammed into the roughly 5,000-plus square foot structure that once served as the Town Hall. Two police captains and five sergeants share one small office and one phone line on the top floor. The 911 dispatchers take emergency calls in a high-traffic, noisy area sandwiched next to the front lobby. Old metal gym lockers hold overflow evidence next to that room.

In fact, many of the staff lockers were salvaged from the girls' locker room at the old Minnechaug Regional High School.

The entire bottom floor - where there is a so-called "community meeting room," a staff kitchen, office space, the main evidence room, the electrical room and one spot that houses hundreds of thousands of dollars in technical equipment - is filled with the overwhelming scent of mold.

And, there's moisture-bred stuff growing on the walls - There's unspecific, moisture-bred stuff crawling up the walls in the bottom floor of the police station. Photo by Stephanie Barry

"During those really soaking spring rains, there's about an inch of water on the floor in here. We get it up with a shop-vac," said Police Chief Roger W. Tucker, gesturing to the electrical room in the basement.

When asked by a reporter what a particular growth was on a wall in the main evidence room, Tucker responded with a chuckle: "I don't know."

Another staffer said she refers to the wall-crawling growths as "barnacles." With two prior proposals to upgrade the police station shot down over the past 30 years, employees have been forced to grin and bear it.

"Due to recent cutbacks, the light at the end of the tunnel has been shut off," reads a sign propped up in one administrative office.

Tucker is hopeful about the upcoming votes by taxpayers - a 2/3 vote is required at the May 11 Town Meeting plus a simple majority on the May 16 ballot if it survives the first hurdle. Interim Town Administrator Thomas Sullivan has said that although the new police station is estimated to cost $8 million, the town could afford $4 million from available funds and residents would be asked to approve a debt exclusion override of $5 million.

However, Tucker is unsure how prominent the police station needs are in voters' minds with public school issues and other fiscal matters in play. Signs on many lawns in town urge voters to vote "yes" for a new police station but he is unsure how the populous will lean given that tax bills in Wilbraham are already steep.

"It's always about money," Tucker said.

Sullivan has set a 15-year bonding period for the project that would bump average homeowners' taxes up $16.03 in the first year with descending quarterly expenses to $12.44 quarterly by the seventh year.

Police held the third in a series of open houses at the current station on Saturday. Traffic was light. A number of those who came to take the tour were fathers with small children fascinated by police work. They got to sit in Tucker's chair and take a photo.

There will be a public forum on April 28 and another open house on May 2.

Tucker said suggestions that they build an addition on the current building are unrealistic. They've maxed out on the property and don't even have a garage for their police cruisers. Plus, the brick foundation on the 105-year-old building is rotting.

The last rehabilitation done at the site was in the late 1970s and was intended as a short-term fix, he said.

He believes the building is basically breathing its last gasp for use as a 24-hour, critical, technologically-driven municipal service space.

It's not just about aesthetics and morale, it's about safety and preserving the integrity of their investigations, Tucker argues.

Plus, advocates for the new station scaled back initial plans for the proposal by more than $1 million and have identified a plot of land next to the fire station on Boston Road where the owner has offered to demolish the house before selling the parcel.