AUGUSTA — A proposal to build a fire station in the rapidly growing and high traffic commercial area of north Augusta could go to voters in November.

The station would be on city-owned land at the intersection of Anthony Avenue and Leighton Road on a 26-acre lot that is currently a field surrounded by trees.

The approximately $3 million station would be funded entirely by tax increment financing money, which City Manager William Bridgeo said means it would have no impact on property taxes.

The station would speed response times to car accidents, fires and medical emergencies in the bustling commercial area that includes the Marketplace at Augusta and the Central Maine Commerce Center, and it would be closer to the new MaineGeneral Medical Center.

The three-bay station has been on long-term capital improvement plans for city officials for several years. A 2008 consultant’s report, done before the new hospital was proposed to also be built in north Augusta, recommended a new station to serve the busy area.

Fire Chief Roger Audette said response times to parts of north Augusta area now reach seven to eight minutes, longer than the department’s goal of a response time of five minutes or less.

“There has been a lot of development and growth, including the completion of the Commerce Center and the buildings around the Commerce Center, along with the third bridge and changes in the interstate system, all those things compounded the need for a fire station there,” Audette told city councilors recently. “And with the hospital being out there, transport times have increased” because the new hospital is a longer distance from the city’s fire stations than the old hospital building.

The city bought the lot, known as the Quimby lot, in 1999 for $175,000 in hopes of using it to attract business to the area. It is divided into four lots and zoned commercial.

Matthew Nazar, development director, said the city has not sold any of the subdivided lots. He said even with a fire station on the site, the city could still sell the other subdivided lots on the property.

Jeffrey Bilodeau, at-large city councilor, said building a road in to the fire station on the property could help stimulate development of the rest of the property.

Bridgeo said the fire station would probably only occupy a couple of acres of the property.

If the new station is built, the city would likely close the Western Avenue fire station, where the city’s ladder truck is kept now because it is too heavy to be parked inside the 94-year-old Hartford Fire Station on Water Street, according to Bridgeo. The ladder truck would likely be moved to the new station, which would also be home to one city ambulance and other city firetrucks.

Bridgeo said the project would be paid for entirely with TIF revenues generated from TIF districts originally created in part to help spur development of the area around the Commerce Center and the Marketplace at Augusta.

Tax districts allow municipalities to shelter property taxes generated by new development within designated districts, as long as the sheltered money is used for certain purposes, such as economic development or infrastructure improvements. Bridgeo said state law specifically allows the funds to be spent on fire stations.

The money is also sometimes returned to businesses in the district to help offset their costs of new development. In the city’s north Augusta tax zone, for example, the developer of properties in the Commerce Center area retained half the proceeds from new tax revenues on development there, while the city retained the other half.

Bridgeo said that and other available tax financing would provide enough money to pay for the new debt for the proposed fire station.

Sheltering money through a tax district means they are not added to the city’s total property valuation for state tax calculation purposes. That means those funds do not negatively impact the amount of state aid for schools and revenue sharing the city receives, during the term of the tax financing.

Bridgeo said plans for the new station do not include plans to hire more staff.

Audette said insurance premiums would go down for residents and businesses in the area if a modern, staffed fire station were built in north Augusta. He said the decrease would likely be fairly modest for residents, perhaps around $50 a year, but large businesses, which pay much larger insurance premiums, could save around a $1,000 a year in reduced premiums.

Thursday city councilors are scheduled to consider appropriating $1,000 to hire an architect to develop an estimated budget for the proposed new fire station. Ralph St. Pierre, finance director and assistant city manager, said a previous estimate of $2.9 million doesn’t include the cost of site work and needs to be updated to reflect more recent construction costs.

Bridgeo said the proposal to spend $1,000 for an updated budget for the project is in anticipation of city councilors potentially sending the proposal to build a new fire station to voters in a November referendum vote.

Councilors meet at 7 p.m. Thursday in council chambers at Augusta City Center.

Councilors are also scheduled to:

• bestow Damon’s Pizza and its owner Dave Wheelock with a Mayor’s Recognition for Excellence in Community Service award, for their support of the community and local sports teams;

• consider setting property tax due dates as Sept. 11, 2014, for the first half, and March 12, 2015, for the second half.

Keith Edwards – 621-5647 | [email protected] | Twitter: @kedwardskj

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