November 18, 2012

Hallowell fire station plans stuck in impasse over current structure

Committee charged with Fire Department's strategic plan can't agree on what to do with Second Street building

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

HALLOWELL -- The committee studying what to do about a home for the fire department is finding itself divided over the past and the future.

click image to enlarge

Workers hang a sign on the exterior of the Hallowell Fire Department station on Second Street in February 2011.

Staff file photo by Andy Molloy

The committee of city officials and residents is charged with implementing the Fire Department's strategic plan, which was delivered to City Council in late May and stated that building a new fire station is "paramount" to enhancing fire protection in Hallowell.

Construction of a new station, however, is entagled with the disposition of the existing one, about which nothing has been decided. Some members of the committee have grown frustrated with what they see as a lack of progress.

"I've been to three meetings of this committee over this study, and every meeting is consumed with discussions over this old fire station," said Fire Chief Mike Grant, who is on the committee. "This committee is to talk about the future, and not the past."

Some members of the committee are primarily interested in the historic Second Street building, which Grant thinks should be severed and assigned to another committee.

Sandy Stubbs, a committee member and president of the historic preservation group Row House, also said the committee seems to be going nowhere. She supports Grant's desire for a new fire station but doesn't want it to come at the expense of restoring the existing one, which she envisions as a museum for Hallowell's history.

The fire station was Hallowell's original town hall, and parts of it date to 1828. A rough estimate put the cost of restoration around $1 million.

A new fire station would cost at least $700,000, and closer to $1 million if the city also moves the Hallowell Police Department out of the City Hall basement and into the new building.

Many city officials see the old and potential new stations as inextricably linked.

"Anything we do regarding the existing building is going to affect the resources we have moving forward," Councilor Mark Walker said at a City Council meeting last week. "We have to determine what the long-term future is for that building, and what is the city's financial obligation for it? If we're keeping it in city hands, we're going to have to invest some money in it."

Sullivan said the implementation committee has reached informal consensus that Hallowell should keep its own fire department rather than contracting with another community and that the city needs a new fire station -- both ideas that have already received support in City Council discussions this year.

Last week some councilors said they do think the existing station should be considered separately.

Councilor Philip Lindley said his only question is whether to house the police in the new fire station, which will determine how large a property to buy.

"The long-term use of the old building is, to me, irrelevant to those questions," he said.

Construction of a new fire station is likely several years off.

In recent years, Hallowell has taken on significant debt for capital improvements and purchases, and the city owes more than $300,000 this year and each of the next four years.

In the 2017-18 fiscal year, the city's debt service will drop from $329,088 to $182,494, which would give the city room to borrow money for the fire station without raising taxes.

In the meantime, however, Hallowell may undertake a reconstruction of Water Street, other roadwork and vehicle purchases that could add to the debt, City Manager Michael Starn said.

City Council asked Starn to pursue regional options to reduce costs, including the possibility of building a station to share with Farmingdale.

Starn talked with Farmingdale's selectmen about that possibility about a year ago, but little has happened since then, though both communities remain interested.

"They were generally in favor of working together, but we couldn't really get a clear understanding of if we are going to work together, how are we going to work together?" Starn told councilors. "Who's going to take the lead?"

Councilors Lindley and Ed Cervone also asked for more information about what it would cost to contract fire service with Augusta.

Cervone said he does not want to pursue that option actively, because residents opposed it, but he thinks city officials and residents need to know what the cost would be relative to building a new fire station.

Susan McMillan -- 621-5645

smcmillan@mainetoday.com

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