Fire hall referendum process gets rolling

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The wheels on a long-anticipated Salt Spring fire hall referendum process are finally turning in public, with a hot-off-the-press informational brochure released Friday and a general timeline in the works.

As described in the brochure with a campaign title of Prepared Today. Planning for Tomorrow, the proposal is for an 11,500-square-foot building that fire district personnel say provides the bare minimum of space but will improve department operations immeasurably.

The estimated cost is $13.7 million, with approval to borrow $9.7 million of that amount required by a referendum that is expected to be done by the end of June via mail-in ballots.

Salt Spring Fire Chief Jamie Holmes told a small ASK Salt Spring gathering at the library on Friday the district advised its price consultants and the S2 Architecture firm it has hired that islanders have said, “We want the cheapest, most functional building you can give to us,” and that has been reflected in the plans to date.

“So what it’ll probably look like is a prefab steel apparatus bay with wood framed offices attached to it,” said Holmes.

Two drive-through bays that can house four trucks are included in the design, as is the possibility of expansion in future years. The site is on land donated several years ago by owners of the adjacent Brinkworthy Place modular home community on Lower Ganges Road just north of Ganges.

David Holt, who has followed fire department issues for a number of years and has a construction and engineering background, said it seems hard to believe that the facility needs to cost $13.7 million.

“This is a pretty damn expensive garage,” he told the ASK Salt Spring meeting.

However, fire department reps replied that it was a realistic estimate for a post-disaster standard building that must comply with provincial government requirements and considering today’s elevated construction costs.

Bruce Cameron, whose Return on Insight company is handling public engagement issues for the hall project, told Holt that the building was “way more than a garage.”

“Anywhere in this province where you’re going to build an emergency response centre there are standards that have to be met, in terms of configuration, decontamination areas and in terms of all kinds of other operational issues. It’s not a garage.”

The $13.7-million figure also includes approximately $2 million for contingencies, said Holmes.

“It’s what the rates are,” he added. “If you look at what emergency buildings are costing, they are costing in the range of $1,000 to $1,500 a square foot.”

Because the fire board has been putting $600,000 from its annual property tax requisition into a reserve fund for the past few years and will receive money from selling the current Ganges hall site, only $9.7 million will need to be borrowed. It will not result in any change to the current fire district property tax level.

Fire board chair Rollie Cook said, “So folks can say, ‘Yes, I want this building. I want to improve the fire service,’ and it will not mean a tax increase on your next year’s or subsequent years’ tax bill. You’re already paying for it.”

While an exact date for counting of the mail-in ballots has not been set in stone, the expectation is that the deadline for receipt of ballots will be the end of June.

The unsuccessful 2013 fire hall referendum proposal, for an 18,300-square-foot building estimated to cost $6.25 million, was raised at Friday’s meeting. That proposal was rejected by 61 per cent of 2,622 voters.

The size of the 2022 building has been reduced from earlier discussions because the Capital Regional District-run emergency operations centre will no longer be part of the facility. The EOC has already moved into the Salt Spring Island Middle School, which is being leased to the CRD by the Gulf Islands School District.

Deficiencies of the current Ganges hall, which was built in 1959, were enumerated at the meeting, including its size for accessing fire trucks, lack of decontamination facilities, a leaking roof, structural integrity and a location that inhibits response times during busy days in Ganges. Space is also currently being rented off site for some administration personnel.

An open house on the project is expected to occur later this month, among other public education activities. More information is available on the saltspringfire.com website.

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