AUGUSTA — City councilors expressed support Thursday for borrowing $6 million to renovate and expand Hartford Station, the city’s 96-year-old central fire station.

Councilors didn’t vote on the proposal, but all of them agreed to sponsor an agenda item, expected to go to councilors for their vote in two weeks, that — if approved — would send the question of whether to bond $6 million to renovate and roughly double the size of the station to voters in a citywide referendum.

The major project would seek to address multiple problems at the current fire station, including garage bays so narrow that newer firetrucks won’t fit into them; a structurally deficient floor that can’t support the weight of firetrucks; a lack of space for training, female sleeping quarters, decontaminating equipment and clothing, and access for people with disabilities; and a need to update to current standards and meet the needs of firefighters whose role has changed dramatically since the station was built in 1920.

The building at the head of Rines Hill, above the south end of the city’s downtown, would be expanded on the east side of the site, onto land already owned by the city.

Building the addition there probably would mean a short section of Gage Street, which goes from Memorial Drive just off Memorial Bridge to the nearby Water Street, would be discontinued because there would not be enough room for the short street and the expanded fire station.

Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti said she wants to find out what downtown advocates think of Gage Street potentially being discontinued.

The city’s largest, heaviest firetrucks would be kept in the addition, in two large drive-through bays and two smaller back-in bays, while the existing four smaller bays would be used to park ambulances, pickup trucks and other lighter, smaller pieces of equipment.

Officials said the station is in an ideal location, on top of a hill overlooking the city it was built to protect. A 2008 Matrix Consulting Group study concluded Hartford Station is ideally located to be the city’s central fire station.

“It is an iconic building,” Deputy Fire Chief David Groder said of Hartford Station. “It covers several neighborhoods. It’s great for response time to calls. It has got the best location we have right now. It’s where the bulk of our population is. We’re shooting for the future here. We’re trying to get ready.”

The city already has at least two firetrucks — an engine and a ladder truck — that can’t be kept at Hartford because they’re too big and heavy. The trucks now are kept at the Western Avenue station, and the city in January expects to take delivery of a new multipurpose ladder firetruck, which also won’t fit inside Hartford.

City officials have been aware of the need to upgrade the station for years, and they have designated tax revenue to be collected in multiple Tax Increment Financing districts in the city to help pay for fire station improvements. Ralph St. Pierre, finance director and assistant city manager, said the project would be funded primarily from a TIF collecting revenue from taxes on natural gas pipelines installed in the city in recent years. He said those TIFs are projected to bring in enough money to pay the cost of debt for the fire station, and still have money in them for other projects.

“It would have no impact on property taxes,” St. Pierre said.

The city considered a similar proposal several years ago but failed to secure sought-after federal stimulus money available at the time. An architect recently revisited those plans and provided an updated estimate of the cost, of about $6 million.

A $4 million fire station is under construction at the intersection of Leighton Road and Anthony Avenue, to serve the north Augusta area. Hartford is expected to remain the city’s main fire station after construction of the new station is complete.

Mayor David Rollins said the two projects should be considered an investment that will protect the city for at least the next 75 years.

Groder noted all the city’s fire stations were built before responding to EMS calls with ambulances and other rescue vehicles was part of the Fire Department’s role. Now, he said, with some 5,000 calls a year to the department, EMS calls make up about 80 percent of them.

He said the work would be done so there would be no interruption in fire or ambulance services during construction. When the addition is being built, operations would continue in the old part of the station. When the addition is completed, firefighters, who are at work around the clock, would move into the new addition and construction would switch from there to renovations of the older part of the brick building.

City Manager William Bridgeo said if councilors approve of the proposal in two weeks, it could go to voters in the Nov. 8 general election. If approved by residents, it could go out to bid in the summer and be ready to open by the fall of 2018.

“I’m for it. This is great,” Ward 4 City Councilor Anna Blodgett said of the proposal.

Ward 3 Councilor Patrick Paradis said he hopes the addition could be done in a way that makes it blends in with the existing historic station.

Groder said Hartford Station was originally built for horses, and today’s modern firetrucks don’t fit into it. The city’s older engine truck kept there until recently barely fit, with only about 2 inches of clearance on each side as it is backed into the station.

That truck is no longer kept there, because of concern that the deteriorated floor is structurally deficient. Only ambulances and pickup truck-sized vehicles are parked inside Hartford now.

While the Hartford Station proposal was not before them as a voting item, councilors Thursday did vote, unanimously, to approve two other bonds — $750,000 in bonds for paving and other major capital improvements, which can be adopted, per city charter rules, by a council vote; and $1.3 million in bonds for other capital improvements, which will go to voters in November.

The $1.3 million in bonds for which voter approval must be sought would be paid back with proceeds collected in the city’s TIF accounts, and thus would have no direct effect on the property tax rate. The primary funding source would be natural gas TIF money.

While some TIFs are used to return taxes paid on new development to the developer, in this case the city receives all the proceeds from the natural gas TIFs.

Major projects proposed to be included in next year’s capital improvement plan include $650,000 for paving on multiple city streets, $300,000 for ditching and pavement preparation on Cross Hill Road, $320,000 for architectural and engineering costs for the expansion and renovation to Hartford Station, $250,000 in repairs to the front entrance of Augusta Civic Center, $225,000 for road and sidewalk work on Commercial Street, and $80,000 to buy a portable stage for use on the waterfront and other locations.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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