HALLOWELL — City Councilor Michael Frett said during Monday’s council meeting that an email from the Augusta city manager proposing Hallowell pay $100,000 for automatic mutual aid from the Augusta Fire Department “feels like extortion.”

Augusta City Manager William Bridgeo recently sent a letter to Hallowell proposing a new automatic mutual aid agreement that would cost Hallowell $100,000 annually — currently the city doesn’t pay Augusta for automatic mutual aid. The current budget doesn’t include funding support for that proposal.

The automatic aid agreement was forged in 2014, and Frett, who represents Ward 2, asked why Augusta didn’t discuss payment from Hallowell over the last three years. He said it seems that Augusta is only coming after that money in the months since Hallowell’s council decided not to contract with the city of Augusta for fire protection services, instead choosing to maintain its own department.

The councilor said it bothered him that “Augusta is basically holding a gun to our head saying we won’t get their fancy toys” unless Hallowell pays for them.

Fire Chief Jim Owens, who took over in February after former chief Mike Grant retired, has said he wants to eliminate automatic aid with Augusta. He told the council that he prefers to call the Augusta Fire Department on an as-needed basis, rather than the department automatically responding to Hallowell.

“Mutual aid means I call you when I need you,” Owens said. “We’re not requesting it and we don’t need it.”

Owens said it would generally take he or his firefighters about 30 seconds to determine whether to call Augusta for help. He said he doesn’t know of any other large city charging a smaller city or town for automatic mutual aid.

“I don’t understand where this is coming from,” the chief said. “It’s an unheard-of situation.”

Councilor Kara Walker said it’s important to know that there won’t be a delay in response. She said some people have expressed concern that if the automatic aid agreement is dropped, the Augusta department would be sitting around for 10, 15 minutes waiting for Hallowell to call. But that’s not the case, she said.

In her experience in emergency management and working with fire departments, she agrees with Owens that a chief or officer can decide on whether to call for aid within 30 seconds to a minute.

Owens said the continued negativity coming from Augusta has affected his fire fighters.

“They’ve done nothing wrong,” he said. “They’ve given 110 percent to the city for years, for long before I got here.”

In the other main agenda item, the council conducted the first reading of the upcoming municipal budget that City Manager Nate Rudy said will see a minimal increase he hopes won’t impact the mil rate.

Monday’s meeting was the first since city voters approved a controversial $2.36 million bond package late last month. The bond’s two biggest components are $625,000 for next year’s Water Street reconstruction project and $600,000 for road improvements at Stevens Commons.

The budget is projected to increase about $172,000, or 2.92 percent, though Rudy said the council can make adjustments between now and the third reading of the budget. Rudy said the final budget will be approved before the end of the summer. The city’s operating budget increase, separate from the city’s contribution to Regional School Unit 2 and Kennebec County, will be even smaller.

The biggest increase, as of now, is the addition of more than $100,000 to the fire services budget line. Last year, the city earmarked $48,875 for fire services, but this year Rudy has proposed about $158,000. Funding the city’s part-time fire chief, the purchase of new self-contained breathing devices and costs associated with the construction and maintenance of a fire station contributed to the increase.

Councilors also discussed imposing new limits on parking on Water Street, Second Street and the connecting streets between them following a recommendation from the Parking Committee. Parking is limited to two hours between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and Rudy said enforcement of the posted limit will increase. The city will install signs that specify the time and days of the parking limit.

Parking has long been a concern for many downtown Hallowell business owners and city residents, and the upcoming Water Street reconstruction — which will close each side of the street for about 12 weeks during 2018’s peak season — has exacerbated the angst and hastened the need for creative solutions.

“There’s a strong desire for (limits) longer than two hours so that a person shopping downtown or having lunch or dinner have time to do both,” Mayor Mark Walker said.

Councilor Lynn Irish owns WhipperSnappers Quilt Studio on Water Street and said it seems like a two-hour parking limit is sufficient during the day. However, some of her customers told her they only come to her shop in the early morning because they can’t find a spot later in the day.

In other business, the council unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding signed by Stevens Commons developer Matt Morrill and the city of Hallowell to build a fire station at Stevens Commons where the Farwell Building is now. An anonymous donor pledged up to $1 million in March to build a station at Stevens Commons. The donor has imposed a June 20 deadline for the city to have a deal with a contractor to begin construction at the site.

Other items on the agenda included approving a $5,500 funding request by Rudy for a summer intern, the approval of a contract to begin repairs to the culvert near the end of Central Street in rural Hallowell, and the first reading of a proposed ordinance change, namely altering the zoning map by rezoning three lots in rural Hallowell from the Business C District to the Rural Farm District.

In lighter news, Maggie Warren, a longtime community leader, was named the city’s Spirt of America award recipient.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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