BEACON FALLS — Nearly 20 years after the Valley fire school closed, firefighters in the valley are still looking for a place to call home.
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. In 2010, the state bought four lots — nearly 11 acres in all — for $862,500 on Lancaster Drive in the Pinesbridge Commerce Park.
While the state has done some work on the project, the state bond commission must approve funds that the legislature has authorized for the fire school, and governors set the commission’s agenda.
At the bond commission’s meeting on June 26, funding for the fire school remained absent from the agenda due to what has become a running debate between Gov. Ned Lamont and Republicans on implementing highway tolls and transportation funding.
After Lamont pledged funding for the school during his campaign, small towns that rely heavily on volunteers are feeling the effects of this political debate.
“It’s kind of disappointing,” Beacon Hose Co. No. 1 Fire Chief Brian DeGeorge said. “They (firefighters) need a home, a place to go.”
DeGeorge said the prolonged debate has been tough on the Beacon Falls volunteer fire department. The fire school is forced to run classes remotely using other facilities and equipment. He said the fire school and public safety has been put in the middle of the political debate.
Volunteers and trainees that come for training travel around the state for classes, according to Ken Mitchell, president of the Valley Fire Chiefs Regional Training School. He said they are doing everything they can to deliver the programs but a lack of a common location is making the job much more difficult.
“We’re in the 20th year of a five-year project, so we’re kind of dismayed that [funding] hasn’t come through,” Mitchell said.
DeGeorge said the lack of funding for the fire school has weighed on Beacon Falls, as well. Since the land for the school has gone unused, he said the town has looked at trying to get the property back on the tax rolls.
Last year, town officials tried to broker a deal with the state to find another site in town for the fire school after a company expressed interested in the four lots the state bought for the school. Their attempts weren’t successful.
At the June bond commission meeting, Lamont said that bonding capacity is limited without funding through toll receipts. The legislature has allowed $26 million for the fire school but the bond commission still has yet to approve $14 million.
Lamont last month suggested he would withhold bond funding for the fire school and other projects because without toll receipts state borrowing for transportation would eat up so much of state government’s bonding capacity.
In a June 19 letter to House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, who has been critical of Lamont’s lack of movement on the fire school, Lamont wrote the state’s fiscal challenges require officials to reexamine prioritization of bond funds.
“To this end, I have tasked the Office of Policy and Management with a complete review and prioritization of all eligible projects — including the Valley fire school,” he wrote. “At this time we are unable to support this new project.”
Klarides said it’s important for volunteers to have access to education and proper training. She said this is a bipartisan issue and that she will continue to talk to the governor in hopes of getting the funding for the Valley fire school on the bond commission’s agenda.
“I’m going to keep trying to get as many people publicly aware of what’s going on with this,” Klarides said. “We’re just asking him to keep his word in a very bipartisan project that’s going to save lives and help people who are putting their lives on the line every day for us.”