NORTHAMPTON TOWNSHIP >> The Board of Supervisors is moving forward with a bond issue to fund the construction of two new fire stations in the township.
The new stations, estimated to cost between $27 million and $34 million, will replace two existing fire stations built in the mid-1960s on Route 332 in Richboro and at 451 East Holland Road in Holland.
“The stations were built to accommodate a 100 percent volunteer fire company for a township with between 6,500 and 7,000 residents,” said Supervisor Frank O’Donnell in motioning to move forward with the financing. “Today our township is close to 40,000 residents and the fire company is a mix of volunteer and full-time firefighters.”
As part of the bond process, the supervisors at its December meeting voted unanimously to approve a parameters ordinance and to authorize its underwriter, RBC, to move forward with the sale of municipal bonds for the project, which is expected to take place sometime in January.
Approval of a parameters ordinance is required prior to marketing and and issuing the bond and establishing a sinking fund for the bond proceeds.
The new stations are needed to accommodate a changing workforce that is transitioning from a volunteer force to full-time career firefighters.
“This is happening all over the country. This is happening all over the state,” said Adam Selisker, chairman of the board of supervisors and chief of the Northampton Township Fire Company. “The requirements to be a firefighter are just enormous. It is so much to ask of volunteers. And what’s basically happening in the fire service today is that many of the folks who have been firefighters are aging out. And we’re just not getting enough new ones in.
“Why is that important?” asked Selisker. “Because the fire stations that were built were built as a stop in place for volunteers. You do your thing and then you leave. It changes the whole ballgame when it becomes a workplace for career firefighters who spend 24 to 48 hours there during their shifts.
“There are very strict safety requirements and we need to incorporate those into our stations,” he added. “That’s where most of the cost is - around safety. That’s our obligation to our firefighters and to all of our emergency responders - to provide them with the tools that we can so they can do their job.”
The township is currently working with the architectural firm, Alloy5 Architecture of Bethlehem, on the design of the new stations. According to the township, the firm has prior experience in fire station design and recently completed plans for new stations in the cities of Easton and Reading.
The designs for the new stations in Richboro and Holland are in the conceptual design phase, which is where the building program is refined in allocating space for all the various components necessary for a modern fire station.
The designs anticipate a 40 year minimum life expectancy for the new facilities.
The estimated construction cost for the two new buildings is approximately $27 million, including building design costs, civil engineering costs, permitting and site improvements. That represents the net amount that the township will need once the bonds are issued.
“We expect the final construction cost to be less than the current estimate,” said O’Donnell.
The actual estimated cost of construction will be determined once the concept plans and total building sizes are finalized, said township manager Bob Pellegrino.
The parameters ordinance authorizes the issuance of up to $34 million in municipal bonds, although Pellegrino said the township won’t need that much for the projects.
The higher amount includes the net amount needed by the township for all costs associated with the project, bond issuance costs and any capitalized interest the township determines may be necessary related to the timing and repayment schedule of the bonds.
During public comment, resident Joe Johnston weighed in on the motion, wondering how it would impact the tax rate, how far it will push back the township’s debt and whether the township would be looking at renovation costs as an alternative.
“It’s going to be pretty expensive. We’re talking three times what we paid for the police station, at least, possibly more,” said Johnston. “Our grandchildren aren’t even going to be around to pay this off. It’s concerning.”
Johnston added, “I am in favor of full time firefighters. I have no problem with that. All of our services are top notch in the township. And there is a concern with the outdated fire houses,” he admitted. “But I also know that renovating buildings is a lot cheaper then tearing them down. Are we going to get alternative bids for renovations? We’re in uncharted times right now. We don’t know what the future holds. People are suffering financially.”
Responding to Johnston, township manager Bob Pellegrino agreed that the stations will cost the township about three times the cost of the police station, but noted that the township would be building two stations for that cost.
“The buildings today that exist are not salvageable,” he added. “They cannot be converted into a modern fire station. They are not big enough. To retrofit the existing block building would be foolish,” he said. “You have to bite the bullet if you want the firefighters to show up and move forward with the paid program. We’ll do it slowly. We’ll do it deliberately. But it has to be done.”
Supervisor Eileen Silver, in supporting the motion, said, “We have had the most amazing fire company over the years and we haven’t paid for it. And now they have to live where they are not safe,” she said of the growing full-time staff. “They don’t have any place for people to sleep, for people to shower.
“We have been very, very lucky that we have not had to do this in the past. We don’t pay a lot of money for the excellent service that the fire company provides,” said Silver. “And if we get these bonds and our debt is such that we have to raise taxes in order to pay for it, I think most of our residents will not be upset about paying for the excellent service that we get from the fire company.”
Added supervisor Dr. Kimberly Rose, “As a supervisor our main goal is the health, safety and welfare of our residents. It is the most important thing that we do. That’s why we built the new police station. That’s why we’re doing the fire stations. People expect good fire service. They expect good police and EMS service. To me, that is our big priority.”
Supervisor Barry Moore agreed with Silver and Rose.
“From a financial standpoint, this couldn’t be a better time to do this. Interest rates are very low right now. When we go to market we’ll get very attractive rates. This asset that we are proposing here, they are going to be buildings that will last 40 to 50 years. We’re financing for 25 years. It’s really the perfect time to do this.
“There’s no need to justify the need,” said Moore. “We definitely need it. And from a financial standpoint the timing couldn’t be better.”