Officials continue push for Valley fire school funds

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

BEACON FALLS — Local officials are looking to keep the pressure on Gov. Ned Lamont when it comes to bonding funds to build a new Valley Fire Chiefs Regional Fire School.

The Board of Selectmen Sept. 9 approved a resolution supporting construction of the school and placing the money to build it on the State Bond Commission’s agenda for approval.

The former Valley fire school closed in 2000 after the property in Derby was declared a brownfield. In 2010, the state bought four lots — nearly 11 acres in all — for $862,500 on Lancaster Drive in the Pinesbridge Commerce Park to build a new training school.

The state has done the work to prepare for construction, but construction can’t begin without the funding. The State Bond Commission must approve $14 million of the $26 million that the legislature has authorized for the training school, and governors set the commission’s agenda.

“We’re basically saying, we’ve done all this preliminary legwork on it, the only thing that’s missing is the funding from the Bond Commission,” First Selectman Christopher Bielik said.

The commission held a special meeting earlier this week. The money for the school wasn’t on the agenda.

Over the summer, the money for the training school became entangled in the debate between Gov. Ned Lamont and Republicans on highway tolls and transportation funding. Lamont suggested he would withhold bond funding for the school and other projects because without toll receipts state borrowing for transportation would eat up so much of state government’s bonding capacity.

Thirty-three legislators signed a letter to Lamont dated Sept. 9 urging him to approve the bonding for the school. House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, and House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, also sent letters to Lamont this month in support of the school.

“The governor remains committed to ensuring that firefighters across Connecticut receive the advanced and specialized training that they need. That goal will be aligned with the governor’s fiscal approach to reduce the state’s overall borrowing,” said Max Reiss, communications director for the governor’s office.

The resolution approved by the selectmen in Beacon Falls is part of a grassroots effort among local officials to keep the pressure on Lamont in a professional manner to get the funding for the school, said state Rep. Kara Rochelle, D-104th District.

Rochelle, a first-term legislator who represents Ansonia and Derby, said she’s been in communications with the governor’s office about the school. She feels the disconnect stems from the view that the school is a financial issue. She said it’s a public safety issue that can’t wait for the state legislature to get its act together.

“It provides an absolutely critical and essential service to the community,” Rochelle said.

The Valley fire training school primarily serves nine Valley towns — Woodbridge, Orange, Bethany, Beacon Falls, Seymour, Oxford, Ansonia, Derby and Shelton — though classes are open to firefighters from outside those towns. Many of the firefighters that attend the classes are members of volunteer fire departments.

Without a physical school in the Valley, instructors lug equipment around and teach classes wherever they can find the space in local firehouses, said Ken Mitchell Jr., president of the Valley Fire Chiefs Regional Fire School.

“It gets old quickly when you’re tramping around the state,” he said.

For live training exercises, like live burns, firefighters have to schedule the training at other schools throughout the state, including in Fairfield, New Haven and Wolcott. Mitchell said doing these kind of live trainings at other schools means Valley firefighters, along with their departments’ apparatuses, aren’t nearby to respond to an emergency in their community.

“It jeopardizes the public safety of the people in the greater Valley area,” he said.

The Board of Selectmen’s support for building the fire school in the Pinesbridge Commerce Park comes a year after town officials tried to broker a deal with the state to find another site in town for the school.

At the time, a company in the industrial park expressed interested in the four lots to expand, Bielik said. The company is now looking at a different parcel in town, he said.

“The possibility of making a shift is not as vital, not only for the business but for the town to get business in. It’s not as vital as it was at one time because now there’s an alternative for that,” Bielik said.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, who has been among the legislators pushing for Lamont to fund the school, commended the Board of Selectmen for approving the resolution.

“I applaud their proactive step to bring greater awareness of this need to the attention of the public as the Governor continues to try and sidestep this need and play politics with people of the Valley’s safety despite his campaign promises,” she said. “I hope the various Valley towns will follow the lead of the Beacon Falls Board of Selectmen in this matter. This issue has always been bipartisan and it is my hope that it continue to be so.”