HALLOWELL — A city resident is circulating a petition in an effort to nullify the City Council’s decision to maintain an autonomous Fire Department and lease space in a yet-to-be-built fire station in Farmingdale.

Stephen Langsdorf, who is also the attorney for the city of Augusta, said he needs 216 signatures by Feb. 24 to force the council to revisit their unanimous vote that spurned the city of Augusta in favor of the agreement with Farmingdale.

“I’m not trying to mandate there be a contract with Augusta,” Langsdorf said. “My goal is that this would be a better and more deliberate process by the council in determining what their choice is.”

The city’s fire services committee and council met more than 10 times over 13 months to review several different options for the city’s fire services future, ultimately narrowing the choices to the Augusta and Farmingdale plans.

A decision is necessary because the current fire station on Second Street is more than 180 years old and no longer can accommodate modern firefighting equipment.

The deal with Augusta would have included services provided by full-time firefighters, trucks and equipment, safety inspections, dispatch services and emergency medical services. It would have cost Hallowell $180,000 a year and would have added about $100 to the average annual property tax bill in Hallowell.

By going with Farmingdale, Hallowell would continue to have an autonomous volunteer department that would cost an estimated $118,000 per year — about $50 in additional property taxes. In addition, Augusta would continue to respond to fires in Hallowell as part of a mutual aid agreement at no cost to Hallowell.

The council held a special meeting Jan. 26 after receiving the final report from the fire committee. Three committee members, including chairman Bob Duplessie, recommended contracting for fire services with Augusta; while two committee members, including Councilor Diano Circo, favored the Farmingdale option. Duplessie was on vacation and didn’t attend the Jan. 26 meeting, and thus, he didn’t give his final thoughts before the vote.

“My concern is that there was a 13-month process by a committee but the council made their decision in 40 minutes,” Langsdorf said. “I thought it was really reprehensible that they made a final decision without being able to hear from the chairman of the committee (that night).”

Mayor Mark Walker disagrees with Langsdorf’s assertion that the council made a hasty decision without hearing more information. He said he thinks it’s unfortunate that Langsdorf’s action is taking place after a 13-month process and doesn’t think it’ll change anything.

“It was a respectful and appropriate process, and they made a decision that we knew wasn’t going to please everybody,” Walker said.

Walker and Langsdorf said the council will have two choices if the petition is submitted in time with the required number of signatures. It can either revisit the decision and vote again or decide to put the vote to city residents. The mayor thinks the council ultimately will make the decision, if it comes to that point.

“We are a council form of government, which means we don’t put things out to town meeting-style votes,” he said. “I don’t sense there’s any appetite for doing that with this issue.”

To secure the signatures he needs, Langsdorf said he would spend time in the lobby of Hallowell City Hall and will be knocking on doors this weekend. He said he has some other people helping him spread the word and wants anyone interested in signing the petition to contact him.

“It’s going to take a lot of work, and I’m hoping I’ll get some help,” he said. “If the council votes to reconsider their decision and have a more deliberate process before making a final decision, that’s all I can ask for.”

Councilor Kara Walker, who was elected to represent Ward 3 in November, said she attended almost all the related meetings during the 13-month process and felt “completely informed” when casting her vote Jan. 26. She said Langsdorf could have attended the same meetings.

“We’re working on trying to engage citizens in the process right from the beginning, because I’m not making any decisions in a vacuum,” Walker said. “(Fire services) has been an issue for decades.”

With all the important decisions the council will make this year about the Stevens Schools redevelopment, the Water Street reconstruction project and downtown parking, among others, having this petition and possible protracted conflict could be demoralizing, said Mayor Mark Walker, who is not related to Councilor Kara Walker. However, he said he thinks it could be a unifying moment for the council.

“I think it’s very possible this could bring the council together,” the mayor said. “They’re doing their best to make good decisions and they’re supporting each other, and I’m happy with the discussions we’ve had on this subject.”

RESPONSE TIMES

Langsdorf said fire departments should be concerned with reducing response times, but deciding to share space in Farmingdale would only increase response times to any scene in Hallowell. According to the committee’s report, the average response time from the Hallowell Fire Department is 9 minutes; Langsdorf said moving to Farmingdale would add a minimum of 3 or 4 minutes to that.

The report said fires grow exponentially larger after 12 minutes. Langsdorf doesn’t know why the council made this decision knowing that Hallowell firefighters, who are all volunteers, couldn’t be the first responders.

“This whole plan is dependent on Augusta continuing to be the first responder for Hallowell,” he said. “Why don’t we just make a fair agreement with Augusta to be the primary responder and recognize that Hallowell would be a secondary responder?”

City Manager Nate Rudy and interim Hallowell Fire Chief Jim Owens met Thursday with Augusta City Manager William Bridgeo and Augusta Fire Chief Roger Audette. Rudy said Owens explained the direction he plans on taking with the Hallowell Fire Department and said he’d continue to work with Bridgeo directly on any issues or concerns he wants to discuss.

“Having different or conflicting messages coming back and forth between Augusta and Hallowell would not be productive,” Rudy said. “This (mutual aid agreement) is a matter for our two city governments to sort out.”

Rudy said Bridgeo reiterated that Augusta isn’t making any threats or decisions to remove itself immediately from the cities’ mutual aid agreement, but he said Bridgeo told him they will be reviewing the agreement.

“The (Hallowell committee report) causes us to look at the intensive reliance by Hallowell on the Augusta Fire Department when they have critical situations,” Bridgeo said. “In the last 20-plus years, anytime there’s been a major incident in Hallowell, it’s been the Augusta Fire Department providing the majority of the support and resources.”

Bridgeo said because the Hallowell decision is so fresh, he doesn’t expect the review process of the mutual aid agreement to be immediate or hasty. He said Augusta officials will take time to think about what Hallowell’s decision means to Augusta and its taxpayers.

“Our taxpayers struggle to fund the services we have, and I think this becomes a question of whether there should be some sort of contribution from the city of Hallowell,” he said. “We’d try to come up with something that’s fair for the taxpayers of Augusta while honoring our long-standing relationship with Hallowell.”

Rudy said he wished Langsdorf would have spoken about his concerns and any information he had before the council made its vote.

“Getting that information after a vote of the sovereign and duly elected council of Hallowell in a way that tends to question their authority or capacity to make that decision is unfortunate,” Rudy said.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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