HALLOWELL — City councilors and residents are clear: they want to keep their fire department.

The big unknown, though, is whether that means renovating and keeping the Hallowell Fire Department’s 13 members in a vintage Second Street fire station ravaged by mold and damage, or building an entirely new building where multiple city services could be based.

“We are really moving towards a new building,” councilor Steve Vellani said at a City Hall meeting Wednesday night. “Pragmatically speaking, I don’t see turning the current building into a modern fire station.”

Camden fire consultant Neil Courtney was on hand for his first Hallowell City Council meeting since delivering a report on fire department options to the city in December. Most of the volunteer department attended, many giving up seats for citizens in an overflow crowd in the tiny council chamber.

Courtney’s report did not recommend a solution, but it laid out several options, including building a joint department with or merging fully with another town; keeping the Hallowell Fire Department; creating a public safety department housed in a new building; or contracting services to a larger municipality.

After many residents spoke emotionally about the need for a Hallowell Fire Department, city councilors agreed contracting services or merging departments wouldn’t be considered. That whittles the options down for Courtney to return later with an implementation plan for the city.

“I think we have a wonderful fire department,” said resident Michelle Truman. “The more local control we can retain, the better.”

Local control was a key issue for councilors, who said the city should retain its own fire protection. Councilor Lisa Harvey-McPherson pointed to the city’s lawsuit against the Greater Augusta Utility District, saying the utility district raised sewer rates in a way that unfairly burdens Hallowell ratepayers.

There are few reliable cost estimates for a new building, though City Manager Michael Starn said he’d estimate a $1.5 million to $2 million cost for a public safety building.

At a January 2011 meeting, the cost of renovating the existing station was estimated between $475,000 and $525,000. But Courtney said after his study he now believes renovation isn’t possible because of the building’s condition and safety issues resulting from its proximity to Second Street.

“That fire station does not lend itself to modern design,” Courtney said. “You don’t have any parking. You’re pulling vehicles onto the street.”

Councilor Edmund Cervone said if he were to support a new building, it would have to be multi-use.

Earlier in the meeting, Courtney said, “Having so few firefighters in the department is a concern to me and probably to the community at large.”

“I feel like consolidation in the public safety building, whether we have a public safety head or keep it separate, still doesn’t address the very real concern at the potential for diminishing personnel,” said councilor Steve Vellani.

If you build it …

Councilors’ concern about staffing motivated Capt. Jeffrey Thompson to speak about the fire department’s automatic aid agreements.

“When we get called to a fire fight, there’s not just 13 of us,” he said, noting the 18-member Farmingdale Fire Department, along with as many as six Augusta firefighters, will respond to Hallowell fire calls.

Thompson recommended a new building to house fire services, partly because it will help the department recruit more firefighters. “I think I go with the old saying, ‘If you build it, they’ll come,'” he said.

Vellani and councilor Edmund Cervone said because the fire department will be in their station for the next few years and the building will remain under the city’s ownership even if the department moves, they should continue renovations there.

And there is money for that. Starn said Hallowell has $50,000 in a public safety building budget line for capital improvements, and the fire station is the city’s only public safety building.

“We need to … make some adjustments and make some investments in the building so that we protect our investment and give the department a functioning unit,” said Cervone, who said giving the department showers and a useable second floor should be a focus.

Now, the station’s second floor is closed because of mold, collapsed ceilings and water damage. The department contracts out equipment laundering because there are no showers there.

By February, Starn said he hopes the city will hone in on a specific option for Courtney to consider. By March, he said that plan could be done.

But after the meeting, Courtney said he’ll need more information from the city before then.

“It’ll take more work,” he said. “It’s just matter of building upon where we’ve come from and building a solid plan.”

Tough work

“We did some work tonight that took us further than any council ever has,” said Mayor Charlotte Warren, near the meeting’s end. “This is what democracy looks like and it’s tough work.”

“I’ve been here 29 years and this is the furthest along we have ever been,” said Hallowell Fire Chief Mike Grant. “She’s right.”

But, Grant cautioned that councilors should look to contract certain services with full-time departments such as fire inspections of city buildings.

Grant has previously criticized Warren, saying she was presiding over “more of the same” delay on a fire station decision that has plagued Hallowell for decades.

The chief has changed his tune, saying his previous comments have helped press for change.

“The truth is a bitter pill. I kind of felt vindicated tonight,” Grant said. “We’re getting somewhere.”

Michael Shepherd — 621-5632

[email protected]

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