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Cambridge station referendums may return in April

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The Cambridge area may be headed again toward a slate of spring referendums to expand its fire and EMS station.

The five municipalities represented on the Cambridge Community Fire and EMS Commission — the villages of Cambridge and Rockdale and towns of Oakland, Lakes Mills and Christiana — have until Dec. 8 to finalize any questions for the April 5, 2022 ballot.

After several hours of discussion on Oct. 7, the commission set a follow-up special meeting for Thursday, Oct. 28 at 6:30 p.m. at the Oakland Town Hall, to consult with an architect and to potentially make decisions related to a spring vote.

The five towns and villages annually share the cost of providing fire and EMS service in the Cambridge area, based on their equalized values.

The five referendums held simultaneously last April were also based on equalized value, with about 25 percent of the total $6.5 million project cost then proposed to be paid by Cambridge, 48 percent from the Town of Oakland, 21 percent from the Town of Christiana, 3.5 percent from the Town of Lake Mills and 2.5 percent from the Village of Rockdale.

Rockdale and Town of Lake Mills voters approved in April 2021 referendums to contribute to the cost to triple the size of the station on West Main Street in Cambridge.

Rockdale and town of Lake Mills officials said at the Oct. 7 commission meet they don’t believe the questions needs to be their ballots again in 2022. They said they believe the 2021 results remain valid as long as the total cost of the revised project doesn’t exceed the $6.5 million approved then.

Referendums failed last April in Cambridge and in the towns of Christiana and Oakland. In order to bring those back in 2022, the commission has a host of decisions to make in the next month and a half. Among the most immediate is deciding whether to, in consultation with municipal boards, simplu set a dollar figure that the project could not exceed, and to work later to revise the building and site plans within that limit; or to work quickly now with an architect to craft a revised building and site plan with a new a cost attached before the referendum question is set in December.

“Personally, my preference is to reverse engineer it. Give me a price and we’ll hit it,” said Cambridge Volunteer Fire Department First Assistant Chief Tim Scott.

Devin Flanigan, of Keller, Inc., a design-build firm from Kaukauna the fire and EMS commission has been working with, said he believes a “solid plan” could be ready by December.

But Flanigan said that is predicated on the commission all being on the page on the revised scope and cost.

“The number one reason projects fail is board disagreement,” Flanigan said. “If this board can’t all say ‘this is the right thing to do,’ how could you expect the community to do that?”

Cambridge Village President Mark McNally and Christiana Town Chairman Mark Cook said they need to discuss next steps with their municipal boards prior to Oct. 28, including hearing a maximum dollar amount they’re willing to contribute this time.

“I do have to answer to a board,” Cook said.

“We’ve got to get this through our own boards, and we’ve got to have a number that they’re comfortable with…instead of just, well, here’s a number and here’s what the village of Cambridge has to pay,” McNally agreed.

Oakland Town Chairman Gene Kapsner, meanwhile, said he continues to believe that current and future fire and EMS needs would best be met if the project proceeded in its original scope.

“I thought $6.5 million was reasonable, honestly I did, and I was very disappointed that it didn’t pass here in Oakland,” Kapsner said.

Kapsner acknowledged, however, that a new slate of referendums have the best chance of being embraced by voters, and passing, if the total cost is less than $6 million.

“I think at this point our responsibility is to show the public that we’re making a concerted effort to get costs (down),” Kapsner said. “At $5.75 million or $5.8, I think that would fly.”

A Building Review Committee that met over the summer to revise the project to reduce the cost, recently presented several scenarios for trimming square footage that they said could bring it down to as little as $5 million.

The committee’s ideas have included constructing a free-standing EMS building on the southeast corner of the current site and adding on to the west side of the building on land the fire and EMS commission already owns. Its ideas would still involve expanding the station onto the adjacent site of a former Pizza Pit restaurant, that the town of Christiana owns, but possibly to a lesser extent with fewer new apparatus bays, fewer sleeping rooms, fewer restrooms and other possible square footage reductions.

Commission members, fire and EMS department members and members of the Building Review Committee concurred on Oct. 7 that the priority should be on constructing safe and high-quality workspaces, even if that means a lower-quality exterior façade than originally envisioned. They also said any new addition would have to be able to be added onto again in the future.

“Put up a pole barn, I don’t care, but the safety of the firefighters is number one,” said Fire Chief Terry Johnson.

“I would much rather have the quality on the inside,” agreed committee member Sheila Palinkas.

The Building Review Committee has cautioned that its figures are rough and not vetted to take into account rising materials costs. Nor have its ideas yet been reviewed by an architect.

“What we tried to do is give you a conceptual plan that we believe comes in under budget,” said committee member Ted Vratny, of the town of Oakland. “If you like one of these concepts it will take some more work to develop it.”

Cambridge Volunteer Fire Department officials have reacted strongly to the suggestion by the committee that not all of the station’s apparatus bays be drive-thru, compared to all of the bays in the orginal plan. Scott said that would necessitate parking some trucks and equipment behind others and shuffling to get them out when needed, costing precious time in an emergency.

“I don’t think that’s as doable as you think,” said Scott, adding that backing trucks into a station is a “a common source of firefighter injury.”

Cook also said he’s been consulting with an attorney on whether an agreement signed by all five municipalities in 2019, tied to Christiana’s purchase of an adjacent Pizza Pit restaurant site onto which the fire station is envisioned to expand onto, is now void.

Wording in that agreement required successful referendums in all five towns and villages for the Pizza Pit property purchase to be valid.

Cook said pending an attorney’s opinion, the land purchas element of the revised project might now be able to proceed without referundum approval from all five towns and villages.

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