WATERVILLE — As city councilors weigh the potential benefits of turning the building that houses the Morning Sentinel into a police station rather than building a new one, the bargain-basement cost of the building is just one small part of the discussion.

The council will take a second vote March 20 on whether to buy the building at 31 Front St., across the street from city hall, for $500,000, to retrofit it for a police station.

Last Tuesday, Morning Sentinel owner MaineToday Media Inc. asked $600,000 for the building, down from an initial asking price of $1.5 million. The council took a 4-3 vote to buy it for $500,000, but MaineToday hasn’t said whether it agrees to the lower price. The council also nullified a Feb. 7 vote it took to build a new station at Head of Falls.

While the price for the Sentinel building is low, those against buying the building are concerned about added costs of energy and the lack of ability to expand at the site, among other things. Those in favor of buying the building, however, say it’s a workable bargain for the city in tough economic times.

City Manager Michael Roy told the council last week that building new would cost the city $2.6 million to $2.75 million. He said buying and renovating the Sentinel building would cost $2 million to $2.2 million.

Roy contends that while it appears building new is more costly, the city would save money in the long run because buying the Sentinel building would mean losing $30,725 annually in property taxes from that building and paying an additional $15,000 annually in higher energy costs in the existing building versus a new one.

“The cost difference is not substantial enough to offset the very serious functional issues with the inside and outside spaces (of the Sentinel building),” Roy said Friday. “And we are not, in any way, going to be close to having an optimal layout of the police offices within that existing building.”

The city in a best-case scenario could build a new station for $2.6 million and in a worst case, $2.75 million, according to his numbers. With the best case scenario of building new for $2.6 million, the city would pay $186,200 annually in debt payments and at worst $196,900 for building at $2.75 million.

Buying and retrofitting the Sentinel building for a police station would cost, best case scenario, $2 million, and worst case, $2.2 million, according to Roy. The total annual debt payment for best case would be $190,325; worst case, $204,725. The estimates include MaineToday Media, Inc.’s $600,000 asking price, as well as the $45,725 that would be lost annually in property taxes and additional yearly energy costs.

“Those have to be factored into the annual cost,” Roy said. “While the debt service looks attractive in renovating versus new, there are other costs. I’m convinced that in the long run — a 30-year perspective — the new construction is a better financial deal for the city.”

Building new would net the city exactly what it wants for the police department, Roy said. The Sentinel site does not have enough room for a sally port and parking — including handicapped parking, he said. And the one-way drive around the building would create problems with snow plowing and traffic circulation, he said.

The 15-year-old Sentinel building was not built to be as energy-efficient as a new building today, he added. Structural changes must be made to the building and, given the location of the elevator, stairs and hallways, 35 percent of the space will be lost, he said. He also questions whether the Sentinel lot has adequate space for handicapped parking.

Opposing view

Councilor George Myers, Jr., D-Ward 2, disagrees with Roy. Myers proposed the $500,000 instead of the asking price of $600,000 at Tuesday’s meeting. He believes renovating the Sentinel building will save the city money.

“It’s important to keep in mind that Mike’s handout is not factual,” said Myers, who is a former Sentinel managing editor.

Myers said the cost comparison presented by Roy is from Port City Architecture, which was hired to design a new police station.

“(The) council is concerned that Mike’s numbers not be reported as fact,” Myers said. “For example, the cost of a three-bay sally port at Head of Falls can’t possibly be the same cost as a one-bay sally port at the Sentinel. And we have no idea if the Sentinel insulation is poor or if its windows are inefficient.”

But Roy said Wednesday that the $120,000 listed on his handout as the cost for building a two-bay sally port at the Sentinel building also includes the cost for a generator, relocating large air conditioning units on the north side of the Sentinel building where the sally port would be constructed, and building a fence around the north side parking lot. The sally port planned for the Head of Falls site is three bays, he said.

Myers, who revived police station discussions after councilors set aside the issue several months ago, said councilors have to be mindful about how they spend city money in a poor economic climate and with the city expecting a tax increase.

Councilors voted 4-3 Tuesday to nullify a vote it took Feb. 7 to build a $2.75 million police station at Head of Falls after they got a proposal from MaineToday Media Inc. that offered the building for half the price of a previous offer.

Last year, MaineToday’s asking price was $1.5 million. The company lowered the price to $1.25 million a few months later, and then, last week, to $600,000.

The council on Tuesday took the first of three votes needed to buy the building for $500,000 after emerging from an executive session in which they discussed real estate negotiations.

Neil Heyside, chief executive officer of MaineToday Media, said he was surprised by Myers’ offer to pay $100,000 less than what the company asked.

After the Tuesday vote, Heyside said the offer had to discussed by the company. “I clearly won’t make that decision tonight,” he said.

On Wednesday, Heyside said he will discuss the price with Roy before the next vote.

Myers, Council Chairman Fred Stubbert, D-Ward 1, and councilors Erik Thomas, D-Ward 4, and Eliza Mathias, D-Ward 6, voted Tuesday to buy the Sentinel building; councilors Rosemary Winslow, D-Ward 3, John O’Donnell, D-Ward 5, and Karen Rancourt-Thomas, D-Ward 7, voted against.

“I voted as I did because we have a high poverty rate in Waterville, with many foreclosures and tax abatement requests,” Myers said Wednesday. “People like me are living in homes that are worth less than when we bought them. And city residents still have a lot of heartburn about the grandiose aspect of the fire station. That left a big wound on the city. Our police station, wherever it goes, can not be of that scale or there will be a lot of tar and feathering going on, with me helping.”

Support for Head of Falls

Members of the Police Station Study Committee, which spent months exploring suitable sites for a police station and ultimately recommended Head of Falls, weighed in on the debate Tuesday.

Cathy Taylor said the difference in cost of buying the Sentinel building versus building new is small. She urged the council to authorize building a new station.

“I think it’s wrong for us at this time to settle for less than optimal,” she said.

Resident John Cote agreed, saying police would outgrow the Sentinel site within a few years and there’s no place there to expand.

“I think 10 years from now the city’s going to be biting itself hard for having bought the Sentinel building,” he said.

Code Enforcement Officer Garth Collins said he has been with the city 12 years and has kept out of politics. But having been 20 years in the construction business and having managed properties and served as a police officer more than six years, he felt he had to speak up, he said.

He agreed with Cote that the Sentinel site offers no room for expansion, whereas there is plenty of room for that at Head of Falls.

“Taking a building that’s not designed to be a public safety building and putting money into it is just throwing it away,” he said. “The amount of money it’s going to cost to renovate the Sentinel building to bring it up to code is going to be expensive.”

But Thomas said building new may give the city a more ideal police station, but buying the Sentinel might be better for the community.

He said that when talking about loss of property taxes from selling the building, one must also consider the value of the lot at Head of Falls proposed for a police station. He said while the city owns the property now, it could garner tax revenue in the future if someone buys the lot and builds there.

Roy said the city has spent about $30,000 in architectural work, permitting and survey work for the Head of Falls site and if the city abandons that plan, the money will have been lost.

If the city buys the Sentinel building, it would use money from surplus and replace it with bond money later on. Roy said the city’s surplus is between $6 and $7 million.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

acalder@centralmaine.com