ATHOL — In February, Athol’s Selectboard approved a pair of Proposition 2½ debt exclusions totaling $3.2 million. On Tuesday, voters who will vote in the annual municipal election will decide whether they too support borrowing money to repair several bridges and buy a new pump truck for the fire department. If the debt exclusions are approved at the ballot box, voters will have to approve them again at the annual municipal meeting.
Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera told the Athol Daily News: “The Athol Fire Department is operating on one ladder and three pumpers. The ladder truck is 16 years old and in good condition. Then we have a front line part, which is motor 1 – it’s a pump. Engine 1 is brand new; it replaced a 46-year-old pumper last year.
The new engine, which arrived in Athol in January, was purchased with a $605,000 grant.
“The second pumper we have is another front line pumper, which is Engine 4,” Guarnera continued. “Engine 4 is only 10 years old, but it’s in pretty good shape. This pumper was recalled many years ago due to the engine. Athol did not participate in this recall; I do not know why. But that pump cost over $25,000, nearly $35,000 to repair last year alone. So it’s really not a reliable part, in my opinion, to use as a front line part.
Guarnera then explained that the department also has a 25-year-old emergency pumper; Motor 3.
“He’s in decent shape, but he’s really at the end of his lifespan,” he said. “That’s the engine I’m looking to replace.”
The National Fire Protection Association, the chief said, recommends front-line engines be no more than 10 years old and backups no more than 25 years old.
“Since I’ve been Chief,” Guarnera said, “The City of Athol has understood my concerns and the needs of the Athol Fire Department very well, which is fantastic. City officials have been more than understanding, and residents have always been kind and supportive of me and the department.
“I would not be doing my due diligence if I did not make this request on behalf of the department, for the safety of my firefighters and the safety of the residents of Athol and those in the surrounding communities.”
What the community doesn’t know, Guarnera told the Athol Daily News, is that often “there is little or no fire protection or emergency medical services in the city.”
“Some of the reasons for that,” he said, “is that the device is being repaired for weeks at a time. We’ve actually had other cities covering Athol, which puts incredible stress and increases response time.Other times we have borrowed devices from other cities, such as Orange and Barre, or even Royalston, because our devices were broken.
“The other reason is economic. The price of emergency equipment, such as fire engines and ambulances, is increasing by an average of 16% per year. The longer we wait, the more it will cost to replace one of the devices.
Guarnera noted that the pump, which was bought last year for $605,000, would cost between $720,000 and $725,000 this year; next year the estimate for the same truck is $814,000, $944,000 the following year and over $1 million in four more years.
“Believe me,” Guarnera said, “if I could get another grant to buy another pump, I would. The reality is that this will not happen. We were one of only two departments to get a grant for a new pumper on the entire East Coast last year.
“The Athol Fire Department was one of the busiest in this area last year, handling over 3,000 calls with only four members per shift. So proper equipment is of the utmost importance. The engine we just received was an 11 month build, now the build is going to be 18 months or more. So if the city approves the pump, we won’t even see it until the end of 2023, and the engine 3 will be 27 at that time.
Guarnera said approving the debt foreclosure would put his department in the position of not having to buy a new pumper for another 15 years.
Voters are also being asked to fund the repair of several bridges, currently in various stages of disrepair, at an estimated cost of around $2.5 million. The spans include the Pinedale Avenue and Fryeville Bridges, as well as the pedestrian bridge that spans the Millers River at Crescent Street.
Athol Public Works Director Dick Kilhart told the Athol Daily News that the Pinedale Avenue Bridge, jointly owned by the cities of Athol and Orange, was inspected by the state about 18 months ago. MassDOT (state department of transportation) later reduced the weight limit on the bridge, which has holes in the deck now covered with steel plates.
“There is probably a 4ft hole – a few different holes – through the bridge, so you can look through it and see the River Tully just below. They had us tackle it, but once you start limiting the weight, the bridge is about to see its end. They reduced it to three tons.
“What’s three tons? It’s 6,000 pounds. So even a small pickup truck with a trailer can’t exceed that, legally. You can’t go over it with a fire truck, you can’t go over that. You can’t go over it with the ambulance, so the emergency vehicles have to go all the way around, which would come back to Silver Lake if they supported Orange in any way, and vice versa.
Kilhart said the cities of Athol and Orange hired and paid Bayside Engineering, which carried out the design work for Athol’s Exchange Street Bridge, to come up with engineering and design plans for the upgrade. from the Pinedale Avenue Bridge.
“This bridge is essentially tender-ready once funding – if funding – is approved,” Kilhart said. “The fully designed package costs just under $800,000 for Athol’s share, and Orange would have a similar share. The city line runs through the middle of the Tully River, and each city owns half of the bridge. So , the bridge costs just under $1 million for each community.
Kilhart said the Pinedale project amounts to a nearly complete rebuild.
The DPW chief said work is also planned for the Fryeville/Logan Avenue Bridge.
“That one hasn’t lost any weight yet,” he said. “But it’s also about to be downgraded, for weight limitations at some point. We don’t know exactly when that will be. These bridges are put on a list and like they have a chance (the state) comes out and inspects them.
He said the cost of this second bridge project is about the same as the Pinedale Avenue Bridge.
“Obviously you couldn’t do those two bridges at the same time,” Kilhart said, “because people couldn’t move around. What you would do is Pinedale would be first and that would probably be completely closed – just like we did for the Crescent Street Bridge.
“If you’re allowed to shut it down completely – if you can make it happen and allow them to work weekends and work longer – that can happen relatively quickly. One would be closed and completely rebuilt and restored, and then they would move on to the next.
The final element of the bridge debt exclusion relates to the repair of the lock under the Crescent Street Bridge.
“It’s not a complete reconstruction of the bridge,” Kilhart explained. “There’s what they call ‘the secret bridge,’ which is just north of the Crescent Street Bridge near Starrett’s. When they divert water through their turbine, there is a channel that runs underneath. Starrett calls it their lock. This is a piece that goes under the pavement and spans the lock and the road.
“The part on the road is in fairly good condition. But the room under the sidewalk, where the two drainage structures are — aside from the foot traffic going through them, if a car is going up the embankment, going up the sidewalk, or a delivery truck — it would probably pass through there. The steel “silt” in there is as thin as paper.
The work, Kilhart said, would not require a full road closure. Preliminary engineering, he said, puts the cost of the work at “about $200,000.”
Kilhart warned that the fluctuating cost of steel could impact estimated cost projections.
Greg Vine can be contacted at [email protected]