HALLOWELL — Mike Grant has been Hallowell’s fire chief for 33 years. He isn’t sure how much longer he or the department will be around.

That’s because of the continued discussion of the future of Hallowell’s fire protection services, which he said has been “bantered back and forth for years.”

“I just can’t work like this, so I’m not intending to seek reappointment at the end of the year,” Grant said by phone Tuesday afternoon. “It’s detrimental to my health, and I’m constantly losing sleep over this. It wears on you.”

Last month, Augusta City Manager William Bridgeo said he had informal talks with Hallowell Mayor Mark Walker about hiring Augusta to provide fire services for Hallowell, but those talks have been called “very preliminary” by numerous city officials.

Walker appointed a fire services committee in January and charged it with looking at fire protection services without factoring in the need for a new fire station. Hallowell has known for quite some time that its facility, built in 1829 as a town hall, does not meet the standards of a modern-day fire station; and recent studies showed that the building lacked many modern features including automatic bay doors and higher ceilings to accommodate newer equipment.

The committee has met several times already, and Chairman Bob Duplessie said Wednesday to expect a report by the end of the year.

“The study is ongoing and there have been discussions with Augusta, but there have also been other discussions about how we can keep fire services in Hallowell, too,” he said. “They’ve been informal discussions, and we don’t want any overreaction at this point, because there hasn’t been any factual information from the committee.”

Duplessie, a former Democratic state lawmaker and former president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Maine, said he didn’t want to get into an argument in the press with Grant about the committee’s work and its progress, and he said any such argument or discussion would only hinder the process.

“They’ve been meeting, and they’re working through the process,” Walker said in an interview two weeks ago. “This is something we’ll continue to discuss and look at, but our overall goal is to get the best quality fire service for an affordable price.”

Hallowell commissioned a review of its fire protections services in 2011. It listed the pros and cons of contract service, creating a public safety department, merging with another department or a functional consolidation of departments, but the review didn’t make a recommendation. Since then, the city has remodeled part of the fire station, but no decisions about a new station to house modern equipment, or contracting with a nearby community, have been made.

NEW DIRECTION?

Despite the charge by Walker not to consider the fire station when looking at Hallowell’s fire protection services, Grant believes that if “we didn’t need a new fire station, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.”

He estimated about $1 million would be needed for a new fire station and said it should be expected to last close to 50 years. Grant said contracting with Augusta for the same length of time would cost the city more than it would to build a new station. He said a number of figures have been thrown around, including $130,000 per year, but other officials said it’s too soon to say how much a service contract would cost.

“There is a minority group of citizens that feel like putting a million dollars into a new fire station isn’t worth it,” Grant said. “They think we’re better off disbanding the department and not having any firetrucks in Hallowell by going with Augusta.”

One group that Grant believes is against keeping Hallowell’s department is the Hallowell Citizens’ Initiative Committee, which raises money to preserve the Second Street Water Tower. Grant thinks this group is the most outspoken critic of the department because “they want to take control of our building and eventually get the city to pay the money to restore it.”

Sandra Stubbs, president of the organization, said her group has nothing to do with the fire station building or the department and that she “wouldn’t give Mike Grant the time of day.”

She said Grant has been against her group since it was created a few years ago.

“Unfortunately, he’s always complained about our group and says so many things about us,” Stubbs said. “We don’t really have any use for the building; we’re just interested in restoring the tower.”

City Manager Nate Rudy met with Walker and Grant last week and requested that Grant make a written proposal for how he envisions fire services moving forward. Rudy said he asked Grant to work with Duplessie to come up with specific criteria for the Fire Services Committee to review so “the committee could make an informed recommendation to the City Council.”

Rudy said the claim that the city wants to get rid of the Fire Department “is categorically ridiculous.” He said the city has valued the department’s contribution and dedication to the community since it was formed in 1790, but he can’t say for sure what decision ultimately will be made.

Grant has a theory about where the decision process will end up. He thinks the idea of contracting with Augusta will continue to get discussed to the point that his firefighters will “eventually get discouraged and leave.”

The Fire Department had nearly 30 firefighters when Grant started as chief in 1983, but the numbers have continued to drop, and they are down to just 10 firefighters on the current roster.

If the number of firefighters continues to drop, the city would have no choice but to go with Augusta, and the city would have an easier time justifying the decision to disband the department, he said.

“I got appointed by the mayor. I asked for the city’s support. The city said they are supporting us, but they’re running me through this?” Grant asked. “How I am supposed to do my job when I am constantly undermined by certain city officials?

“You hired me to do a job, so support me and support us,” he continued. “Don’t keep fighting us, but it’s been that way the last several years.”

‘ALL THE FACTS’

Grant wouldn’t be specific about which city officials he was talking about, but he said some are looking at the short-term gain from not spending money on a new fire station without looking at the bigger picture. He also said some city officials haven’t been in Hallowell long enough to understand the community and its history, so it’s easier for them to make a decision to eliminate the department.

“There are a lot of moving parts, but we want to do everything we can to have a good-faith conversation about any proposal,” said Rudy, who took over as city manager in June. “We haven’t received any formal proposals yet.”

The Fire Department is frustrated, Grant said, because firefighters think the public is hearing rumors, innuendo and conjecture, and he said some people in the city “have no problem stating falsehoods in the right environment when nobody is there to call them on it.”

He thinks the city has “dragged its feet so long on this issue” that it can’t invest in the infrastructure and invest in the downtown and in the Stevens School campus.

“We can’t just keep kicking it around, because the longer we wait, the chance of Hallowell maintaining its own department diminishes,” the chief said. “We need to make a decision.”

The firefighters are paid $10 per hour while on a call, but Grant said Hallowell has outgrown having an on-call department.

“The opportunity to get more firefighters is there if the attitude of the city was different,” he said. “If the city had a positive attitude toward its Fire Department, we would attract more people.”

The department responds to calls — 92 from July 1, 2014, through June 30, 2015 — and has automatic mutual aid with surrounding municipalities, including Augusta.

“This all boils down to the city not wanting to build a new fire station,” he said.

Grant wants the people of Hallowell to hear all the facts before making any decision, and any decision about the city’s Fire Department would have to go before the City Council.

“This is a big deal and a story that needs to be heard,” Grant said. “You can’t make an educated decision until you have all the facts, and the whole town needs to weigh in on this.”

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ