BERNARDSTON – The Selectboard has collected over 100 signatures on a petition to the state that seeks $1 million that had been earmarked in an overall $3.8 billion bond bill from 2018 for the town’s fire station expansion project.
Selectboard members said the town previously believed it was set to receive $1 million from a 2018 bond bill, bill H.4549. Selectboard members Brian Keir and Robert Raymond shared with the Recorder an email exchange between Campbell and Rep. Paul Mark from Nov. 17, 2017, in which Mark wrote to let Bernardston know the bond bill had passed the House and included the language, “provided further that $1,000,000 shall be expended for the renovation or construction of a fire station in the town of Bernardston.”
“I have been following the town’s debate on constructing or possibly renovating a fire station and thought some assistance from the state could help the process along,” Mark wrote in his 2017 email. “This authorization will be in place until 2022. The Senate must still take up the bill, which I expect will happen in the new year, and then it will proceed to the Governor for signature or vetoes. But the process of securing this funding for Bernardston has begun successfully in the house.”
When the bond bill passed in 2018, the Selectboard expected it would receive the funding, and former Town Coordinator Hugh Campbell said the money was “authorized but not (yet) appropriated” for the town’s use. In 2020, Bernardston was told it did not meet the requirements, including the need for a “shovel ready” plan, to release the money. With a plan for a four-bay garage, parking lot and office space approved, the Selectboard is now seeking the $1 million.
The Selectboard met with Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, who was not elected into office until 2019 after the bond bill had been approved, last week. She explained that bond bills do not guarantee towns will receive anything.
“Bond bills are authorizations to bond or to borrow, and getting an item earmarked within a bond bill does not guarantee a community or entity will get that money,” Comerford told the Recorder during a phone call Monday. “And it’s heartbreaking that Bernardston had been counting on that money.”
She said “more money goes in than ever comes out of bond authorizations,” and “unfortunately, they are not a guarantee of payment like a grant or loan.”
Selectboard member Stanley Garland voiced his frustration with the process during an Aug. 25 Selectboard meeting.
“We feel that they took the time to vote for this in both the House and the Senate, and the Governor was nice enough to take a photo-op at one of the colleges signing the thing. … We feel that we should get that money,” Garland said.
While the money was not guaranteed, Comerford said she is actively working to secure financial support. She is also looking into applying American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money for the project, and said this is a “perfect ARPA expense, really,” because such funds are best allocated for one-time expenses and cannot be promised for ongoing expenses. Regarding the petition, Comerford said she “believes in advocacy, and believes local communities should raise their voices and tell their stories.”
“While that’s my job as their representative, it’s also good for me if I can go to the Senate president or governor and say, look this is from all the elected officials in Bernardston…,” Comferford said. “It’s just $1 million, and we have significant funds in the commonwealth, and Bernardston needs a fire station.”
As of Tuesday, current Town Coordinator Bordeaux said the online petition had 67 signatures, and he estimated in person signatures brought the total to “well over 100.”
The petition can be found on the homepage of the Bernardston town website townofbernardston.org. It asks for names and addresses of those “signing,” and Selectboard members encourage residents from neighboring towns who receive mutual aid from the Bernardston Fire Department to add their names alongside Bernardston residents.
“Our Fire Department, you could look at it as serving a town of 2,100 and that’s that, but because of mutual aid we are on first alarms with 18 towns and second alarms with 26 towns,” Town Coordinator Louis Bordeaux said.
Speaking Monday, Mark, D-Peru, said he was planning to schedule a meeting with the Bernardston Selectboard to discuss lobbying the governor’s office. With Bernardston’s approved site plan, he said there is more weight to get the $1 million released before the bond cycle closes in 2022.
Bordeaux also reached out through the Small Town Administrators of Massachusetts, and heard from 10 towns across the state with similar stories of earmarked money that was never released to them.
Bernardston continues to make steps to complete the station expansion. In April 2020, the town obtained the 12 Church Street lot neighboring the current station for the addition property. In August, the town hired Colliers International out of Hartford, Connecticut, as the OTIS Project Manager for $74,600. In May, town voters approved borrowing up to $3 million for the project at Annual Town Meeting, and support for the project was secured in the May 10 election when a 133 to 68 vote passed Question 2 seeking a debt exclusion to pay for the bond needed to construct the Fire Station addition.
“We’re happy that the town voted to fund the new station up to $3 million, but I’m sure that many of the people who approved it had been thinking the million dollars was an actual possibility as long as the Selectmen dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s,” Raymond said.
The Selectboard said Bernardston’s budget is stretched too thin to save money for a multi-million project while meeting immediate needs without state aid. Out of Bernardston’s $5 million budget, $3 million goes to the Pioneer Valley Regional and Franklin County Technical Schools and another $1 million goes to town employee’s salaries and benefits. This leaves roughly $1 million remaining for other necessary, ongoing expenses and special projects.
Comerford told the Recorder her office refers to this as “the Bernardston Bill,” because “it was really inspired by trials that Bernardston has been through.” She said she was working with colleagues, “a number of whom have similar concerns in their communities” and towns that are being “squeezed in every direction with a lack of state help” for spending. Information on Comerford’s website for the bill to support municipal building construction, S.2457, “An Act Creating a Municipal and Public Safety Building Authority,” states “Small towns in western Massachusetts and around the state don’t have the tax base or borrowing ability to build new or upgrade existing public safety and municipal buildings.” Comerford writes that the bill “creates an independent public authority, similar to authorities that help finance municipal school buildings and libraries, to provide matching funds for local public safety and town office buildings.”
“We’re sending a letter, and making another approach to the governor’s office today,” Comerford said Monday. “It was filed this session with Bernardston in mind, and I’m hellbent on moving some version of it forward.”
Unfortunately, Keir said, it could take years before this is established and it may not come to fruition in time to benefit Bernardston’s efforts for the fire station.
Zack DeLuca can be reached at email@example.com or 413-930-4579.