By Amaris Castillo
On Sept. 4, Dracut residents, in addition to voting in the state primary elections, will have an opportunity to vote on two crucial questions that could shape the Fire Department's future and enhance the safety of Dracut Public Schools.
The questions were paired in a single warrant article at Town Meeting in June, but Town Meeting chose to have them separated for the special election.
On the special election warrant, posted online last week, the issues appear as Questions 1 and 2. Both questions seek a debt exclusion to fund the projects. Debt exclusions allow the town to temporarily raise the tax levy more than 2 1/2 percent to fund a specific project. The tax increase is removed once the bond is repaid.
The original warrant article sought a debt exclusion to provide $4 million for constructing, equipping and furnishing a new fire station at 539 Nashua Road to replace the current station at 1990 Lakeview Ave. The same warrant article also sought a debt exclusion to provide $950,000 for the purchase of security equipment at various school buildings.
On the special election ballot, Question 1 pertains to the fire station funding, while Question 2 pertains to the school funding.
"We are asking the property owners, the residents to approve a debt exclusion which will pay for the majority of a new fire station in the Collinsville section of town," Town Manager Jim Duggan said. "The existing one is beyond its life capacity.
Leo McMahon, union president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2586, gave a reporter a tour of the station that currently houses three firefighters at a time.
McMahon raised multiple concerns, including where firefighters keep their equipment and the tight living space where they type up incident reports.
"We, as an organization, support both questions," said McMahon, a longtime Dracut firefighter. "As far as replacing Station 3, I mean, we're beyond time. Station 3's done its justice to the town. ... We've retrofitted this as far as we can retrofit it. Up until almost two years ago, there were only two members working out of here. It was at least a little bit physically easier to accommodate, but now with a third person, there's not enough space."
The firefighters union recently launched an online campaign to encourage voters to vote yes on Question 1.
State Rep. Colleen Garry, who, along with state Sen. Barbara L'Italien, spoke at Town Meeting about their efforts to try to secure state money for the fire station, said they are continuing to pursue such funding.
"The $4 million was in a bond bill, and it was approved by both the House and the Senate," Garry said. "With a bond bill, the governor has to actually give out the money. We're still fighting it, but we are getting a little bit of push back."
That bill remains unsigned on Gov. Charlie Baker's desk, and it's unclear if it will be signed into law.
If the funding for the fire station is provided via the bond bill, the Question 1 debt exclusion would not be needed by the town.
Question 2 centers on the installation and implementation of security equipment in various school buildings within the school system.
"We've seen the horrific events that have happened throughout the country with our school shootings," Duggan said. "We have very safe schools, but we want to make strategic investments in the security advancements that are available to protect our students and our faculty."
Duggan said the debt exclusion for the fire station would last 20 years, and raise the tax bill for the average Dracut home by $25 per year. He said the debt exclusion for the school safety equipment would last five years, and raise the tax bill for the average Dracut home by $10 per year.
Superintendent of Schools Steven Stone did not return a call seeking comment.
"As a School Committee member, I absolutely support Question 2 because we definitely need to increase our security equipment and devices," Allison Volpe said. "This would affect all four elementary schools and the Richardson Middle School. As a Dracut resident, I completely support Question 2."
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