HALLOWELL — City councilors unanimously approved the third reading of a $2.36 million bond package, setting the stage for a special election next month.

The controversial package includes $600,000 for a Stevens Commons redevelopment project, $585,000 for a Water Street reconstruction project, $535,000 for rural Hallowell road maintenance, $300,000 for downtown parking improvements and $220,000 to restore the fire station’s wooden tower.

A special referendum election on the bond is scheduled for Friday, April 28.

The council held a public hearing last week to discuss the bond proposal, one of the largest in recent Hallowell history.

Finance Committee chairman George LaPointe said there were people interested in the bond being split, and there were discussions among councilors this week about doing that. However, he said, doing that would restart the public hearing process, which would put a special election in either May or June, disrupting construction season.

While some at the March 6 public meeting spoke in favor of the single-bond proposal, many Hallowell residents argued that having only one bond proposal wasn’t in the city’s best interest.

Ken Young, who has been critical of the way the city has handled the Stevens Commons project, said including each funding component in one package puts the entire bond at risk.

“A single question puts the whole package at risk of a negative vote,” Young said last week. He said most of the people he’s spoken to don’t like the one-question approach because “they want to make their own choices and set their own priorities.”

The $600,000 in funding to help Stevens Commons developer Matt Morrill fix the campus’ road network and sidewalks has received ample public criticism from Young and Patricia Connors, a Hallowell resident who spent almost $600 to send out a postcard stating her opposition to the Stevens Commons component. She said she doesn’t think Hallowell should give a private developer more than a half-million dollars.

Morrill, of Grand View Log and Timber Frames in Winthrop, said the improvements would make the property more attractive to other developers and tenants. His proposal includes turning over ownership of the roads to the city, which would then oversee all maintenance. He said the city would own the land it was investing in before any of the bond money is spent. He also said he’s already invested more money in the property than he’s asking from the city.

Young, however, said Morrill’s project is “fraught with risk” because he has “little, if any, redevelopment experience; little, if any, major bank or experienced investor backing and little, if any, objective market analysis.”

Ward Three Councilor Kara Walker said the council is going to have to commit to educating Hallowell residents on the bond and the importance of each component.

“It’s going to be incumbent upon us to explain why we believe in the bond expenditures and why they all work together,” Walker said.

In other business, Fire Chief Jim Owens provided an update on the Hallowell Fire Department. In late January, the council voted to save the department and lease a space in a yet-to-be-built Farmingdale station, but a petition circulated and later verified has put that plan on hold.

Owens said the department has been accused “by some people as being underequipped and ill-trained,” he said. “That’s not true, and I’ll stake my 42-year reputation on that.”

The fire chief said 75 percent of the department’s firefighters meet the state’s requirement for interior structural firefighters, and he said there are eight firefighters able to respond to emergencies during daytime hours.

“There is no argument that (response) time is important, but we must look at the whole picture of what would be lost if our dedicated volunteers are pushed aside,” Owens said.

The fire department and its effectiveness has been scrutinized since the city’s Fire Services Committee began looking at options for the department’s future last January. The committee, by a 3-to-2 vote, recommended the council decide to contract services with Augusta, but the council unanimously voted Jan. 26 to pursue an agreement with Farmingdale.

“Most of the services we provide and the personal relationships with other departments would not be available with a contracted fire department,” Owens said.

The council will hear public comment on the fire department’s future during a March 23 meeting before deciding whether to nullify their decision or put the matter to the voters as a referendum. The city charter mandates that a special election be held within 30 days of the related public meeting. City Clerk Dianne Polky said she was unsure when that election would be held.

City Manager Nate Rudy presented a preliminary budget, which will be reviewed over the next few months by the finance committee before it goes before the full council. Rudy projects an initial budget of $5,904,310, which represents a 4.24 percent increase over the previous year.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

 


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