AUGUSTA — City councilors, in a unanimous vote Thursday, approved spending an additional $500,000 to build a new fire station in north Augusta.

The additional money, on top of the $3.6 million initially budgeted and approved by voters for the station, is needed to put steel pilings extending 60 feet down through the clay soil under the site to support the weight of the new station and the firetrucks it will hold.

Soil boring at the proposed site on Leighton Road at its intersection with Anthony Avenue revealed the soil is made up of soupy clay. Engineers expressed concern it would not be able to support the weight of the fire station and the water-laden firetrucks it will hold without the cement floor potentially cracking. They recommend inserting steel pilings through the clay to bedrock below the station at an estimated cost of $500,000.

Though some councilors initially expressed concerns about sticking with that site and building the station on pilings in the ground, their concerns were addressed by the city staff, and councilors voted Thursday to approve the extra $500,000 and allow the project to move forward.

Discussion on Thursday focused largely on the overall building design and architectural features, not the need for pilings, which had been discussed extensively at previous meetings.

Resident Ed Hubbard said features such as the exterior masonry on two sides and arched garage doors are aesthetic only and add unneeded cost to the project. He suggested a steel building could be built more cheaply and serve the same purpose.

City officials and the project architect, Ellen Angel, of Bangor-based Ames Associates, said the building is meant to last 75 years or more, while steel prefabricated buildings are expected to last only 25 to 35 years. Angel said her cost estimators said it would not cost any less to eliminate the arches above the garage doors, and masonry was chosen for two sides of the station for its longevity. She said the other two sides are steel to allow the station to be expanded if it needs to be.

Asked by councilors how much less a prefabricated steel building of similar size could have been built for instead of the station as proposed, she said it could cost roughly $500,000 less, though she initially indicated it could cost up to $1 million less. However, she later warned such a building would not work as a fire station because of a station’s interior needs, and it wouldn’t last nearly as long.

Officials also noted the building’s interior is a large part of the cost, including sleeping and living space for the firefighters who’ll work around the clock, as well as an area where equipment and clothing can be decontaminated after firefighters leave fire or other emergency scenes.

“As we find out more and more about the hazards faced by these people who save us, they’re exposed to a lot of toxins, heavy metals, meth labs. They come back to the station, and they’re covered in all that stuff,” Angel said of the need for the decontamination room in the station. “We want to keep everyone willing to do this important job safe and healthy.”

Hubbard, who said he is not an architect but was involved in monitoring construction of a new fire station and school when he lived in Windsor, said $500,000 is a lot of money and officials can save taxpayers’ money by limiting costs wherever they can.

“Government is supposed to represent every person in that community,” he said. “When you talk about people struggling and the economy, I don’t think it is right for government to build something (with architectural features) the average person couldn’t afford. I’m a firm believer if you save a penny here, a dime there, $5,000 here, $10,00 there, it does add up.”

Councilors and City Manager William Bridgeo said the planned building does not have frills but does need to be built to certain architectural standards.

Ward 3 Councilor Patrick Paradis, who previously had expressed concerns about the site, said now that he has heard from Fire Chief Roger Audette and other staff members how and why they chose that location for the station, he agrees it is where the station should be built.

Paradis also noted the city wants to put up a building that will last and something it can be proud of, not a structure such as the 1979 addition to Lithgow Library, which suffered from water leaking into it as well as other problems and which was torn down last year to make way for a new addition to the library.

The council vote Thursday authorizes covering the additional $500,000 with money collected in multiple tax increment financing, or TIF, districts. Ralph St. Pierre, finance director and assistant city manager, said the city has collected $847,600 in property taxes on new development in five TIF districts in the city. Each of those TIFs was established with potential allowed uses, including expenditures for Fire Department infrastructure. That money will more than cover the additional cost and keep the project moving forward without requiring an increase in the property tax rate.

The vote allows the city to spend up to $4.1 million to build the new station.

Bridgeo said it could take another 30 to 60 days for the city to obtain the remaining permits for the project, and the goal is to break ground around April.

The timing matters because December is also when the city’s new $1 million multipurpose “quint” fire ladder truck is scheduled to arrive, and the new truck is too big and heavy to fit into any of the city’s existing fire stations, officials said.

Bond funding of $3.6 million for the fire station and $1 million to buy the firetruck was approved by voters in November 2014.

That vote doesn’t authorize borrowing any more than $3.6 million for the fire station. But councilors were able to authorize spending the extra $500,000 on the project because that money won’t be borrowed. The city already had it on hand in the TIF accounts.

The proposed fire station site was acquired by the city for $175,000 in 1999 in the hope of using it to attract business to the area. However, the city never drew development to the site. Bridgeo said the fire station would take up only a portion of the lot, and the rest still could be developed.

The new station is expected to speed response times to the burgeoning north Augusta area.

In 2008 a Matrix Consulting Group study recommended the city build and staff a new fire station in the Civic Center Drive area near Interstate 95 to speed response times in the area around the Augusta Civic Center and Marketplace at Augusta.

When city officials learned of the clay soil at the proposed site, Matt Nazar, the city’s development director, researched other sites in north Augusta looking for alternatives where a station could be built. He said all the potential sites presented their own development challenges, such as bad soil, ledge or existing buildings that would need to be demolished.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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