WATERVILLE — City councilors approved $3.4 million in spending for the police station project during a special meeting Tuesday, bringing an end to more than two years of planning and debate.

Councilor John O’Donnell, Ward 5, who was the lone opponent in the 6-to-1 vote, fought against a price increase of about $800,000 during about 30 minutes of discussion. The cost to build and equip the new police station, which is under construction at Colby Circle, has increased from an original construction-only estimate of $2.6 million from two years ago, and the 25-year term loan for the project will increase property taxes by $30 a year for the average Waterville home of $86,000.

O’Donnell, during a curt exchange with City Manager Michael Roy, criticized the council for a perceived shift away from conservative spending.

“I haven’t seen this council in the last two years refuse to spend. I think it’s time to change our ways,” O’Donnell said.

Councilor Erik Thomas, Ward 4, who spoke in support of the project, defended the council saying it has held the line on spending each year, and any tax increases were due to reduced revenue sharing from the state. Thomas added that he has heard a recurring question from residents who ask why the city is mounting a major project during a recession. Thomas said tough times can be advantageous for such projects.

“Financing costs have never been lower (and) will never be lower than they are right now. Construction costs will never be lower,” he said. “If we built this in a strong economy, when things were thriving, we’d likely be looking at $1 million more for this project.”

Councilor Eliza Mathias, Ward 6, asked Roy if there was any way to reduce the cost. Roy said it was possible, but would result in nominal savings, “tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands.”

Police Chief Joseph Massey said the size of the planned construction, 12,000 square feet, is the minimum size for an efficient force.

“Initially, it was 14,000. We cut out an exercise room, we reduced our training room,” he said. “We’ve got the footprint about as small as we can.”

O’Donnell asked Massey how much space the police department uses at its station in City Hall. Massey replied that the space is 6,800 square feet, but added that the department rents two storage areas and the station is barely functional.

Thomas argued the $3.4 million figure is a worst-case scenario, because almost $200,000 in the project’s budget is for contingencies, and would most likely be returned unspent.

“You want to make a bet?” O’Donnell countered.

Earlier in the meeting, Roy said the project had already tapped into the contingency fund for an unforeseen problem with the construction site, which is next to the U.S. Social Security Administration and Waterville District Court buildings. An old foundation was recently found during excavation and removal would cost an estimated $8,000.

Roy said excavation was 80 percent complete as of Tuesday and the new foundation could be poured as early as today. Framing for the building is scheduled for early January and the project should be complete by July 1. Roy said the excavation and foundation work, which began two weeks ago, was earlier approved by the council for $500,000 in hopes that the site would be prepared before colder weather set in.

Several things have changed since the original estimate of two years ago, including the addition of an architect and furniture. For instance, the new budget includes about $200,000 for dispatch consoles, furniture and evidence lockers. The plan also calls for a 1,000-square-foot expansion of the building from 11,000 square feet to 12,000. The original plan didn’t incorporate spaces for corridors and stairways, Roy said.

Also, the cost of construction has increased about 14 percent from an estimate two years ago, Roy said. In 2010, the estimated construction cost was $190 per square foot. Two years later, the final cost came in at $217 per square foot. Roy said a similar project in Brunswick is being constructed at $228 per square foot.

The proposed police station has been the subject of more than two years of debate and hand-wringing. A site committee looked at several possible locations for the station, including Head of Falls, which ultimately was the panel’s choice. Members of the public, however, spoke out against that location for various reasons, including its proximity to railroad tracks.

Ben McCanna — 861-9239
bmccanna@centralmaine.com