What’s up with Sycamore’s downtown fire station? City mulls future of 66-year-old building

‘That can’s been kicked down the road long enough that we have to do something in order to kind of get us to the next level,” said Bill Reynolds, a 20-year veteran of the Sycamore Fire Department.

Sycamore Fire Chief Bart Gilmore looks at a 66-year-old boiler in the basement of Sycamore Fire Station 1 on June 9, 2023. Gilmore said the boiler broke down a couple of times this past winter -temperatures inside the stations living quarters got as low as 40 degrees.

SYCAMORE – With no air conditioning in the living quarters and a 66-year-old boiler that went down at least twice over the past winter, Sycamore officials are mulling the future Sycamore Fire Station No. 1.

The 66-year-old building at 535 DeKalb Ave. in downtown is not compliant with Americans With Disabilities Act regulations, contains asbestos and is heated by a boiler as old as the building, Sycamore Fire Chief Bart Gilmore said in May.

Firefighters manning the station slept in the cold three times during the winter when the boiler went down. Within the past month, an air conditioning unit in the station’s living quarters broke, Gilmore said. Replacing it will cost $12,000, a cost that he and the city would prefer to not incur if there’s going to be a renovation or new station is built in the near future.

For now, a handful of portable air conditioners and heavy duty fans are trying to cool the second floor living quarters in Sycamore Fire Station 1, but the indoor air becomes hot and humid on even relatively mild weathered days.

Bill Reynolds, a Sycamore firefighter, paramedic and paramedic coordinator, said the conditions of the building are impacting the department’s response times to emergency events. Recently, there was a sewer backup in the building that Reynolds was working to remedy when an emergency call came in.

“It splashed back at me, and just then we got another call. So I’m with raw sewage and we had to go out,” Reynolds said, before clarifying he washed off the sewage before responding to the emergency.

Reynolds and Gilmore said one of the more difficult nuances of the building is the height of the engine bay. Sycamore Fire pays extra to modify its fire engines so that they can be fit in the station’s about 12-foot garage bays.

There are only a few inches of clearance between the top of fire engines docked at Sycamore Fire Station 1 and the pipes that run overhead. Picture taken June 9, 2023.

During a May 15 Sycamore City Council meeting, Kluber Architects told city officials they estimate it would cost between $12.7 million and $15 million to renovate the fire station, or $11.4 million to $13.6 million to build a new station elsewhere.

On June 5, City Manager Michael Hall said the city has four options. Option 1 is to do nothing. Option 2 would be to deal with the repercussions of maintenance that was deferred in 2017. The cost of the deferred maintenance was $1.5 million in 2017 but has risen to an estimated $3 million, largely due to inflation, city and Kluber officials said.

“I don’t see that really anything but [option] four really makes sense. I mean I can’t see putting in $4 to $5 million just for deferred maintenance when you can get a new station for $12 [million],”

—  Second Ward Alderperson Chuck Stowe

Rebuilding on the site of the current fire station is the third option, but it would cost about $3 million to $4 million more than building a new station in a new location, take a year longer to build and cost millions of dollars to relocate the fire station while a new one is built, according to city documents.

“One of my biggest concerns after hearing the report last time was that, in order to do any sort of real significant rehab in Station 1 as it currently sits you’re going to have to displace the fire department somehow,” Ward 1 Alderperson Alan Bauer said. “And I just worry – number 1 – that that possibly could create some health issues if they’re still in there at all. Number two, whether it would impact their response time.”

The fourth option is to build an entirely new fire station that, according to city documents created after the presentation from Kluber Architects, is estimated to cost between $10 million and $12 million.

Sycamore firefighter, paramedic and paramedic coordinator, Bill Reynolds said water doesn't flow to the floor drains in the engine bay because of ground shift on June 9, 2023.

How to pay for it

Sycamore Finance Director Brien Martin said the city’s been in communication with financial advisory firm Speer Financial Corporation and Beyer & Associates. The firm provided the city with information on bonds and what finances could look like if Sycamore borrowed $10 million, meant to be repaid in 20 years.

Martin said a 30-year loan would allow the city to make lower annual payments, but that plan would cause the city to accrue double the amount of interest as a 20-year plan. A 10-year plan, however, would require annual payments he called exorbitantly high.

Martin cautioned the numbers he referenced still were preliminary, but said funding would most likely need to be shored up through a local tax levy.

Both of the preliminary loan estimates provided to city officials would require Sycamore to make an average annual payment of more than $730,000, and necessitate a little over a $0.13 increase to the city’s property tax levy rate.

Martin said a tax levy rate increase of that size could cost homeowners with homes valued at $200,000 about $191 a year. The cost of option two – addressing differed maintenance at Fire Station No. 1 – could cost the owner of a similarly valued home about $97 a year through property taxes.

Martin said those numbers aren’t likely to see sharp changes once the financing set.

Although the City Council hasn’t voted on any plans yet for the future of the fire station, general consensus among elected officials have leaned toward building a new station at a new location.

“I don’t see that really anything but [option] 4 really makes sense,” Ward 2 Alderperson Chuck Stowe said. “I mean I can’t see putting in $4 million to $5 million just for deferred maintenance when you can get a new station for $12 [million.]”

Ward 3 Alderperson Nancy Copple and Ward 4 Alderperson Virginia Sherrod agreed with Stowe.

Ward 4 Alderperson Benjamin Bumpus said he’s not convinced that a new station is the best option. Bumpus said he agrees with Stowe’s point, especially after touring the station, but is wrestling with the financial implications.

“I’m torn, because I took a tour ... and I can’t argue against what I saw,” Bumpus said. “I’m struggling with what I’m hearing. ... at least two more years before the shovel hits the ground, two more years of figuring out how we’re going to use our engines in this building, our employees in this building. How are we going to survive in those two years, I’m not even understanding that.”

Reynolds said he believes all of the members of the Sycamore Fire Department “want to do right, and be fiscally responsible and frugal,” but he also think’s its time something is done about the aging fire station.

“That can’s been kicked down the road long enough that we have to do something in order to kind of get us to the next level,” said Reynolds, a 20-year veteran of Sycamore Fire.

Sycamore officials are mulling over what can be done about Sycamore Fire Station 1, a 66-year-old building that Sycamore Fire Chief Bart Gilmore said has a myriad of issues on June 9, 2023.