It all looks to add up.
Tear down a school; replace it with a fire station; save $325,000 a year by ending a contract with East Greenwich and use the money saved to pay off the fire station.
Simply put, that’s the logic to demolishing the former Potowomut School and giving that section of the city, which is separated from the rest of Warwick by East Greenwich, its own fire station.
A Potowomut station has been talked about for years. In 2006, voters approved a bond issue for its construction, but Mayor Scott Avedisian, concerned by the cost of added debt, put a moratorium on issuing more bonds. Since then, Potowomut School has closed and the School Department has turned the building over to the city. Now there’s a place to build a fire station, which is the recommendation of a committee that studied possible uses for the building.
Assuming City Council approval of the release of the bond funds, Fire Chief Edmund Armstrong would like to see the award of a contract to demolish the school this month with the work finished in June. As he sees it, a new station could be up and operational by this time next year.
There’s more to the plan that makes for the argument to build a station (estimated at $2 million). Armstrong and Avedisian say it can be done without adding firefighters or equipment. This would be accomplished by relocating one of two engine companies now stationed next to Aldrich Junior High School to Potowomut.
In an interview Tuesday, Armstrong said this would not diminish fire coverage in the vicinity of Aldrich while improving protection to Potowomut. Currently, under its contract with the East Greenwich Fire District, East Greenwich responds to fire and emergency calls for Potowomut. In the case of fires, the Warwick station on Cowesett Road, which requires apparatus to drive through East Greenwich, also responds. Depending on the availability of East Greenwich equipment, and request for assistance, Warwick also responds to emergency medical calls.
In addition to a two-bay station with amenities to house the three firefighters assigned to Potowomut, the 6,200-square foot building would be erected generally on the footprint of the older two-story section of the school and would contain space for a police sub-station and a community meeting room. Conversion to a fire station, Armstrong said, would be more costly than new construction because of the below-grade floor of the school’s all-purpose room and the elevation required to accommodate the engines.
Avedisian sees the $350,000 now being paid East Greenwich as virtually paying off the bond issue in seven years, after which the city would actually reduce costs. The actual cost to the city is about $325,000 depending on the number of rescue calls handled by East Greenwich. East Greenwich bills for those calls and turns the proceeds over to Warwick.
“In the long run it saves money,” said chief of staff Mark Carruolo. His argument is that Potowomut residents would receive “faster and better service” and that, as Warwick taxpayers, they deserve the level of service received by other Warwick residents.
But there are questions.
As presently envisioned, the rescue at Station 5 Road would respond to Potowomut calls. That means rescues would come from Cowesett and through East Greenwich. As Warwick also sends fire apparatus with rescue calls, the engine from the Potowomut station would presumably be the first to arrive at the scene. All Warwick firefighters are EMTs, so they would respond to the emergency.
Armstrong said depending on demand, that rescue could be relocated to Potowomut in the future. In that event, the rescue would also respond to Cowesett calls, meaning they would also have to travel through East Greenwich. The city has four rescues.
East Greenwich Deputy Chief Russell McGillivray said that, since July 1, 2012, the district responded to 278 Potowomut calls. He could not say how many of those were for emergency medical service, but based on experience, 75 percent of all calls are for EMS.
Asked about the relocation of the East Greenwich station on Main Street, McGillivray said the fire district continues talks with the state about 2.2 acres at the corner of Post and Cedar. Initial archeological surveys of the site uncovered Native American activity, including a human skull. He said the district may do additional studies, but if the district built on the site and Warwick was to build, too, there would be two fire stations within an eighth of a mile of each other.
Both McGillivray and Armstrong said there have been no talks of regionalizing service. In fact, efforts for the departments to work cooperatively appear to have taken a step backward. Warwick had planned to take over dispatch for East Greenwich, which would have freed up four East Greenwich firefighters, giving them more men on trucks and generating revenues for Warwick.
“That project has been dropped,” McGillivray said. Armstrong said, “It is not feasible at this time.”
Avedisian entertained the idea of cooperatively working with East Greenwich, but he doesn’t see it under the existing setup.
“A lot of that depends on whether the town takes over the fire district,” he said yesterday. “We could do all sorts of collective things, such as the purchase of equipment.”
McGillivray said loss of the Warwick contract would be “serious” for the district. He said the contract represents 8 percent of the district budget that would need to be made up elsewhere.
Nonetheless, he is not critical of the Potowomut station plan.
“They need to do what’s best to protect their citizens,” he said.Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla, who pushed for the bond issue for a station in 2006 and served on the committee recommending the school for the station, could not be reached for comment. He has previously suggested the fire station include a gymnasium for community use but Avedisian is opposed to the idea, questioning the cost and the funding for maintenance.
Meanwhile, there is concern for the school, which has been the target of vandals and continues to fall into disrepair. The roof is leaking in places and the school department left furniture, appliances and other items in the building.
“The fact that the building is filled with junk is a big issue,” Avedisian said. He said he has given the School Department three options to address the problem: clean it up; have the city clean it up and charge the School Department; or the School Department contracts someone to clean it up.
Pointing out that the school is in a residential area, Carruolo sees little use for the property other than another school, housing or the fire station. He said the property might be attractive for single-family housing or building a small condo development, although in this market he thinks the city would be better off waiting.
The city did not advertise for offers for the school as it did with the closed Christopher Rhodes School in Norwood. The city had hoped to find a developer who would convert the school into an assisted living facility, but there were no takers. Rhodes School remains vacant.
Unlike some other areas of Warwick, such as Route 2, the Mall, CCRI, Kent Hospital, offices, hotels and the airport, Potowomut does not see a daily large transient population. It does get some transient traffic to Goddard Park, the Potowomut Golf Club and Rocky Hill School.
Armstrong points out transients have an effect on department runs. The city’s busiest station is Station 1 in Apponaug that responds to many calls from Route 95 and Route 2. For the 2012 calendar year, Station 1’s engine, ladder and rescue responded to 8,149 calls. Station 5 in Cowesett with a rescue and engine responded to 4,017 calls.
Armstrong acknowledged Potowomut would not be one of the city’s busier stations. He said it would serve Bayridge and a portion of Cowesett in addition to Potowomut.
According to the 2010 Census, Potowomut has 1,022 housing units, of which 942 are occupied. The population is 2,107.
The Census says Warwick has a total of 37,730 housing units.