Efforts to address facility needs of the North Wilkesboro fire and police departments, both in structures over 60 years old, could become stalled by a higher-than-expected estimate of the cost of constructing a public safety building to house both.

A revised construction cost estimate of $7.75 million to $9 million for the proposed 22,000-square-foot facility was shared on Jan. 24 with the North Wilkesboro commissioners by a representative of ADW Architects, the project’s architectural firm. ADW estimated the construction cost at $5.7 million in August 2016.

Whatever the actual cost, it’s hard to imagine it dropping in the foreseeable future. Costs of the W. Kerr Scott Reservoir intake project continued to rise during two decades of delays until it just recently was scuttled by North Wilkesboro and Wilkesboro officials. There should be a lesson in that experience.

Inadequacy of the police and fire departments’ current facilities, lack of space for enlarging them and the town’s purchase of a 19.5-acre site on Second Street for a combination police and fire department facility are good reasons to aggressively move ahead with efforts for a new building. After extensive consideration, the Second Street site was bought for $500,000 in June 2017.

As they await word on results of the town’s application for a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development loan for the project, North Wilkesboro officials should explore ways to make the building more affordable.

This could include studying facilities that have been built in other towns, making design changes and considering different ways of bidding out the project. Are there any grants available for municipal fire stations?

Since the current North Wilkesboro Fire Station at the top of Ninth Street Hill was constructed in 1957, its most significant improvement was a kitchen upgrade. The biggest issue with that facility is lack of space.

The fire department needs about 15,723 square feet of floor space and the current fire station has 5,500 square feet on two levels, according to an assessment and space needs study of North Wilkesboro facilities conducted by ADW in 2010.

The fire station’s narrow bays aren’t designed to be driven through so fire trucks have to be backed into them. One of the bays is in the basement.

Fire trucks are tightly packed behind each other in the bays, which can reduce response time. There is no room for additional fire trucks or other equipment and side compartments of the fire trucks can’t be opened in the bays due to lack of space.

The report said storage space is almost non-existent and firefighter turnout gear and other items are stored in the open in stacks. This reduces the operating use of these products and prevents ordering materials and supplies in bulk, which both increase costs. Officials have said the current fire station wouldn’t be able to house a fulltime female firefighter.

The ADW report said the North Wilkesboro Police Station, in the 80-year-old former town hall building, also lacks the amount of space needed. The report said suspects, informants and visitors all enter the building primarily through the front lobby area, thus creating potential for a variety of problems.

The police station has inadequate security, a lack of separation of sensitive materials and insufficient provisions for handling and storing evidence, the report said.

It also cited inherent inefficiencies with operations on three different floors.

ADW also recommended that the town have a hazardous material study due to certain materials visible in several locations of the police station. A 2016 ADW report cited significant maintenance issues in the current police station, as well as poor energy efficiency.

Police and fire protection are probably the most important responsibilities of municipal government and adequate facilities for the departments that deliver these tax-funded services are essential.

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