After a fire at a public housing complex last week, the Vice President of the North Adams, Massachusetts city council says the municipality is falling behind on maintaining its safety infrastructure. Jason LaForest tells WAMC that up to a quarter of the fire hydrants in the community are out of order, and that the city has been putting off repairing them for long enough.
LAFOREST: So year after year, the mayoral administrations and city councils are very much aware that we're falling behind in North Adams with our infrastructure, and in particular, our safety infrastructure. One of the big issues is the status of our fire hydrants across the city. The city has, I believe, four to 500 fire hydrants and I think it's safe to say that 100 of those are not in working order, which puts our communities and our, you know, our neighborhoods and our business districts at risk if there is a fire. Friday night, there was a fire in one of our housing projects. Recently, the Housing Authority obtained funds through the CARES Act to replace five broken hydrants in that neighborhood that the city had not attended to in many years. Only one of those had been replaced since the new hydrants were purchased in late December, I believe, and thankfully, that hydrant was available for a fire that destroyed an apartment complex on Friday night.
WAMC: Let me ask you this, Jason- What can the city do in the short term to directly address that concern?
Well, the City has robbed Peter to pay Paul in terms of fire hydrants, so we know that they have tried to space hydrants out. But that puts homes at risk. The city at this point needs to come up with an emergency capital plan to fix the fire hydrants so that people feel safe in their homes. And the firefighters feel safe in knowing that when they get to the scene of a fire, they're going to be able to access a working hydrant.
Now, among fellow city leaders, do you feel like there's momentum behind this initiative to see this into fruition?
I do. Many members of the City Council are very concerned. Friday night's fire was a wakeup call. I'm sure the mayor is concerned also. We have limited capital available. But I think it's time that we make this an emergency priority and obtain the capital we need to replace all of our broken fire hydrants.
As far as the funding source, would this all be money from the City of North Adams? Are there state or federal grants available for this? Where do you think that money would come from?
I believe a combination of state and federal grants with a matching of some percentage from the City of North Adams. So typically, those state and federal grants would require somewhere in the range of a 10 to 30% match to replace all of those hydrants. And then the state and federal, or a combination of both, would provide funding for the other 70 to 90%.
Do you have a sense of how other municipalities address safety infrastructure in a way that either complements or contrasts with North Adams?
Well, most of the communities across Massachusetts, the 351 cities and towns in the Commonwealth, are struggling with the same issue. There has been conversation at the state level to create a fund, similar to the fund that is available for communities to tap into to build new schools to replace police and fire stations that are in very poor repair, as ours is in North Adams certainly. And also to look at these other safety issues, like fire hydrants and other public safety infrastructure needs.
So what happens next? Will we be seeing this brought to City Council next week?
Well, first and foremost, yes. So I've requested on behalf of the entire Council, I've requested reports from Mayor Bernard, on the status of our fire hydrants to get an exact number. Hopefully, a capital outlay plan will be included in that so we have a sense of what would be required to bring all of the fire hydrants into working order. And then similarly for our public safety building, which has had serious ongoing issues for decades, especially this past winter, to get a sense of where we're actually at in the safety of that building and what we are working on, to hopefully replace that building.