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Johanna Neumann: The needs for a new DPW are clear

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Thursday, May 20, 2021

Editor’s note: This is the fourth of a five-part series outlining Amherst’s four major building projects. This column dives into the need and financing of a new Department of Public Works building. Previous columns covered an overview of the capital plan, the Jones library expansion and renovation, and a new elementary school building. The final column in the series will cover the new fire/EMS station south of downtown Amherst.

Never in Amherst’s 250-plus years has the town built a Department of Public Works facility. In the 1940s, the town retrofitted a trolley maintenance barn built in 1915 to serve as our DPW headquarters.

Over the course of the next 80 years, this building has seen few improvements or modernizations even as Amherst’s population and expectations increase. It is high time to replace this undersized, failing and antiquated structure with a right-sized and modern DPW headquarters.

What does the DPW do?

Amherst’s DPW has nine divisions that comprehensively care for our public infrastructure. When snow, storms, or other disasters hit, the DPW staff are among the first responders. They maintain all sidewalks and over 130 miles of roads.

The water and wastewater division makes sure our water is clean by maintaining acres of our watershed, 135 miles of sanitary sewer lines, 20 pump stations, treatment facilities, five drinking water wells and two surface water sources.

Meanwhile, the trees and grounds division maintains three cemeteries, 80 acres of manicured turf, town-owned parks like Groff, Mill River, and Kendrick parks and playing fields like Potwine and Kiwanis Parks, two Olympic-sized pools, wading pools, toilet facilities, parking lots and more than 20,000 public shade trees.

Additional divisions include engineering, solid waste management and more. Overall the department’s annual operations and maintenance budget is roughly $2.3 million.

The need for a new facility

The existing DPW headquarters has many problems and deficiencies caused by the age, original intended use, and the overall decrepit condition of the former trolley barn.

The photos available on the town’s website are worth viewing. Structural cracks in the brick masonry allow water to penetrate into load-bearing walls. The roofing is failing with water leaks and water damage is extensive throughout the building. Insulation is minimal to nonexistent throughout most of the structure and many of the windows are single-pane, hemorrhaging heat in the cold winter months.

Despite cobbling on various additions over the years, the building remains undersized, and has an inadequate layout, and antiquated mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems that make it challenging for staff to do their work.

The building and the limitations of the site have also led to costly inefficiencies. For example, instead of being able to store all vehicles, equipment and materials inside, space limitations require them to be stored outside; thus leading to investments depreciating years ahead of schedule.

Finally, the building does not meet industry and code standards for safety, ventilation, electrical operations, and locker rooms/restrooms. There isn’t even a women’s restroom in the building.

Costs

Due to these extensive issues, renovating the existing facility is estimated to cost the same, if not more, than constructing a new one. And given the other uses that this site could be repurposed for, notably a much-needed fire/EMS station south of downtown, the town is actively seeking a site for a new headquarters.

A 2016 feasibility study assessed the current property and facilities, explored the operational space needs of the DPW, explored potential sites, suggested basic building conceptual layouts for a new headquarters, and conveyed initial cost estimates for the project, but more recent comparables indicate this can be done for less money.

As such, the town’s capital plan includes $20 million to acquire a site and build a new building or renovate an existing building for the DPW headquarters. Recognizing that unlike the Jones Library or the new elementary school, there are no state matching programs to help cover the cost of this project, the town is planning to use its recently renewed AA+ bond rating to borrow money to cover those costs.

We’re moving forward. In April, the town put out a request for proposals to buy or lease a property in Amherst or surrounding towns, as long as it is located within a certain distance of the Amherst town center and big enough to accommodate a modern DPW that meets Amherst’s needs.

Like other capital projects in town, including the library expansion, the new elementary school building and the fire/EMS station south of Amherst, the needs for a new DPW are clear. For decades, we’ve asked valuable town staff to work out of an decrepit building that doesn’t meet building codes and their needs for a safe workplace. It’s time to invest in Amherst’s future and reap the benefits that a modern right-sized DPW headquarters will provide.

Johanna Neumann is a 10-year resident of Amherst. She currently serves on the Amherst Planning Board.