Funds for fire school stuck in neutral 

Beacon Falls officials eye land for development

A sign designates the land where a new Valley Fire Chiefs Regional Fire School will be built on Lancaster Drive in Beacon Falls. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

BEACON FALLS — Patience is wearing thin around the Valley waiting for the allocation of state funds to build a new fire training school in Beacon Falls.

“We we’re supposed to be done by now,” said Charles Stankye, secretary of the Valley Fire Chiefs Regional Fire School’s board of directors.

The former Valley fire school closed in 2000 after the property in Derby was declared a brownfield. The search for a new site for the fire school led to Beacon Falls, where the state bought four lots — nearly 11 acres in all — for $862,500 on Lancaster Drive in the Pinesbridge Commerce Park.

The state bought the land in Beacon Falls in 2010. Since then, remediation and studies have been done on the land. Stankye said the state has already spent about $1.5 million on the project.

The project went out to bid a couple years ago, Stankye said, but it will have to go out to bid again because construction never moved forward.

“We’re ready to go,” said Stankye, a past chief of the Derby Fire Department.

The state has authorized the money for the fire school, which will cost roughly $14 million to build, but the Bond Commission has yet to allocate the money for the project. The commission’s agenda is set by the governor, and construction won’t start until the commission allocates the money.

“It’s definitely something that needs to be built,” Beacon Hose Company No. 1 Fire Chief Brian DeGeorge said. “It’s lacking in this area.”

The lack of movement on the Valley fire school led to partisan sniping between local legislators and Gov. Dannel Malloy’s office.

In a press release, House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-114th, criticized Malloy and Democrats for allocating multi millions of dollars in bonding for various projects last month but not approving the funds for the Valley fire school.

“Gov. Malloy and the Democrats on the state Bond Commission put millions more on the state’s credit card, but when it comes to public safety for hundreds of thousands of Connecticut residents there is no money,” said Klarides, whose district includes part of Derby, in the press release.

State Rep. Nicole Klarides-Ditria, R-105th, who is Klarides’ sister and represents Beacon Falls, Derby and Seymour, followed suit in calling for the funds to be released.

“This project was started by Gov. Jodi Rell’s administration and Gov. Dan Malloy continues to prevent the project from moving forward. Valley firefighters need a safe facility that will prepare them for the risks they face daily to protect our communities and family,” said Klarides-Ditria in a prepared statement.

Chris McClure, public information officer for the Office of Policy and Management, responded to the criticism, pointing to $43.6 million that has been allocated for fire school projects since Malloy took office in 2011.

“There is a deep irony in a Republican minority leader who has long-decried state borrowing now demanding that Connecticut borrow to fund a local earmark. … These funding decisions are made after a deliberative process among subject matter experts, not by highly-charged partisans desperate to retain caucus seats in an election year,” McClure said in an email.

The new Valley fire school, which will be one of nine regional schools in Connecticut if built, is part of a larger project to repair fire schools across the state.

The overall project started in the early 2000s when fire schools were in disrepair. Since then, improvements have been made at fire training schools in New Haven and Hartford County. A new fire school opened in Fairfield last year. The state celebrated a ribbon cutting at a new school in Torrington for Litchfield County this month, and has started construction for a new school in Willimantic. The Valley fire school and a school planned in Cheshire are the last two to be built.

Despite the political back-and-forth, there remains no answer as to when the money for the Valley fire school will be allocated.

After talking with state officials, Stankye said the money likely won’t be allocated until the new legislature takes office after the November election.

“We want to be put on the next bonding agenda,” Stankye said.

While calls to release the funds for the Valley fire school grow louder, town officials in Beacon Falls are tired of staring at “prime” property in the Pinesbridge Commerce Park sit idle.

“That’s prime land in the industrial park,” said Sadie Colcord, the town’s economic development coordinator. “So it’s really important to us to continue to grow our tax base.”

Town officials have reached out to state officials to try and get the land back under town control or facilitate a sale between the state and an interested buyer.

According to First Selectman Christopher Bielik, Cameo Metal Products, Inc., which has a location in the industrial park, is interested in the land.

“It would be a huge financial benefit for the town of Beacon Falls to have them expand on those four pieces of property,” he said.

The combined assessment of the four parcels of land is $476,120, according to their property cards. Under the town’s 2018-19 tax rate of 35.9 mills, the land alone would yield about $17,000 in tax revenue.

The town receives some money from the state for the land under the PILOT, or Payment in Lieu of Taxes, program wherein towns are awarded up to 45 percent of what a commercial taxpayer would pay for the same property.

Colcord said Cameo Metal Products is one of a few companies interested in the land. She said combined the four parcels equate to the largest lot in the industrial park. She said the land is shovel ready, while other open lots need work, including blasting.

Bielik pointed to other areas in town that could be used for the fire school, including a large undeveloped tract at the end of Breault Road.

So far, town officials’ attempts to broker a deal with the state have been unsuccessful.

At its meeting in September, the Executive Board of the Connecticut State Firefighter’s Association passed a resolution calling on the state to adhere to the plan and fund the Valley fire school.

“The CSFA does not support any modification to the original plan as it relates to the number and location of Regional Fire Schools nor to the original plan and design of the schools. The CSFA desires to have these two projects move forward without further delay,” the resolution reads in regards to the schools planned in Beacon Falls and Cheshire.

The land in Beacon Falls is under the authority of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection until the funds are released to build the Valley fire school.

State Fire Administrator Jeffrey Morrissette with the Commission on Fire Prevention and Control, which is under the DESPP, said his position is that there’s still a need in the Valley for a fire school.

“Until somebody directs us otherwise that’s still the goal,” he said.

Despite not having a physical building, the Valley Fire Chiefs Regional Fire School continues to train area firefighters.

Classes are held wherever space can be found. For training exercises, like live burns, Valley firefighters have to travel to one of the other fire schools, which can cost additional money and be difficult to schedule, Stankye said.

DeGeorge said Beacon Hose often hosts classes at the firehouse in Beacon Falls. But, for live training exercises, Beacon Falls firefighters go to one of the other schools in the state.

“Unfortunately, it’s like living out of your car,” he said. “You got nowhere to go.”