WINTHROP — U.S. Route 202 took center stage Monday as town councilors agreed to move forward with planning to build a fire station on the road and to once again petition transportation officials to lower the speed limit.

The council, meeting in its regular monthly session, also decided to spend $28,000 of a $424,000 refund from the Maine Public Employees Retirement System, to fund early retirements from the Police Department.

The council approved a Fire Department bid to spend roughly $7,000 to design and study construction of a $2.1 million fire station on U.S. Route 202.

“I like the idea and I think there are some avenues that can be worked out,” Councilor Kevin Cookson said. “I think a preliminary stage of going forward is the prudent thing to do.”

Fire Chief Dan Brooks gave a brief history of his department’s effort to find a new home, a process he said dates back nearly a decade. The Police Department and Winthrop Ambulance Service have both gotten new facilities during that time.

The Fire Department, meanwhile, remained entrenched in cramp quarters on lower Main Street. The primary stumbling block has been the price tag. That is still the primary concern.

“If it’s going to cost the taxpayers one penny more, I’m not in favor of it,” Cookson said.

But Brooks noted the town has just retired a $2 million bond, meaning the town already has built into the budget payment on a bond that would cover most of the cost of a 20-year loan for the new station. Brooks said money from the Tax Increment Finance district at Commerce Plaza, coupled with potential fundraisers, would allow the town to build the new station without increasing the budget, which has been a must for councilors.

Brooks also is hopeful that Winthrop architect Phil Locashi, who has worked with the town on a number of other projects, will be able to find savings in the design.

“I don’t think it’s out of the question to think we could do this with no increase in taxes,” Brooks said. “This is the farthest we’ve ever been toward getting this project off the ground in terms of cost and income.”

Brooks said the ideal spot for the station is a 3-acre lot the town owns next to the former Carleton Woolen MIlls building on U.S. Route 202. He said there are problems to solve involving connecting to the public water and sewer lines because of ledge, but he thought they could be addressed. Brooks stressed that he had not talked to neighboring property owners about their concerns about the station because he was unsure whether the council would agree to move forward. With their approval, the chief said, he would quickly bring those neighbors into the discussion.

“We need to very quickly look at the impact of a fire station to the neighborhood,” Brooks said.

Councilor Kenneth Buck Sr. asked why the station should not be built on an open lot at intersection of Royal Street and U.S. Route 202, but Brooks said the lot was too small for the station. He also balked at the idea of sending fire trucks up Royal Street, which he said, “is basically a one-way street.” Brooks said the intersection onto U.S. Route 202, the site of a number of serious accidents, is problematic.

Brooks said the Carleton mill features none of those problems and has the advantage of being at the top of a hill, which improves response times.

“That’s really the site that’s best for us, in our opinion,” Brooks said.

Councilors later in the meeting agreed to spend a portion of its $424,000 MPERS refund on police retirement.

Across the state — including 11 central Maine cities, towns, public utilities and school districts — excess Maine Public Employees Retirement System money is being refunded in amounts big and small. The system recently disbursed more than $40.5 million from surplus retirement funding employers put into the system when it was consolidated in the 1990s to 96 recipients statewide.

Winthrop councilors on Monday agreed to spend $28,000 of the town’s refund for early police retirements that were negotiated in the most recent union contract but were never funded.

The school district, by state law, is entitled to 17 percent of the MPERS refund, or $72,000. Superintendent Gary Rosenthal laid out plans for spending that money, which included $30,000 toward the budget.

The district also plans to buy new phone and intercom equipment, air exchangers, security cameras and oil nipples.

The remaining money from the refund, about $324,000, will be designated for use at a later date, Council Chairwoman Sarah Fuller said.

“There’s no shortage of things we can spend it on,” she said.

Councilors also agreed to petition the state Department of Transportation to re-evaluate the 55-mph speed limit on U.S. Route 202 from near the spot near the Main Street intersection to the Turtle Run Road intersection. The speed limit on the road through town, and east of the Turtle Run Road intersection, is 45 mph.

Town Manager Peter Nielsen said a resident, whom he did not identify, has repeated a request that the town petition the DOT to lower the speed limit to 45 the distance of U.S. Route 202.

“He hopes you will support him,” Nielsen said.

That, ultimately, is what councilors did, agreeing to send a request to the DOT.

Cookson acknowledged that improvements made by the state, including turning lanes and rumble strips, have helped, but he said speeds are still too fast.

“I still feel the 45-mph speed limit should be the same through there,” Cookson said.

Councilor Richard Henry said the town should wait to see if the improvements help reduce the number of crashes. John Dovinsky, director of the ambulance service, said there is convincing evidence that they already are.

“Our summer up there on 202 is the quietest we’ve had in 20 years, “Dovinsky said. ” All the improvements they have put out there are actually working.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4

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