SKOWHEGAN — The Skowhegan Police Department has operated for decades in the basement of the Municipal Building on Water Street.

The town’s only fire station, on Island Avenue, was built in 1904 and is believed to be the oldest continuously operating firehouse in the state.

But when Town Manager Christine Almand got a unanimous go-ahead from selectmen in April to sign a purchase and sale agreement and to spend $5,500 as a down payment for land off East Madison Road, where a new, combined public safety building would be built, residents’ reactions were mixed.

Voters approved the land purchase at Town Meeting in June, but not everyone favored the location.

Selectmen on Sept. 4 voted 3-2 to hold a referendum Nov. 6 on borrowing $8.5 million for a combined public safety building and to hold a public hearing on the question Tuesday night.

The proposed site is on Dunlop Lane, on 11.3 acres between the Nazarene New Horizons Community Church and a large water tower on East Madison Road in Skowhegan.

The site is not far from the new county jail, built just over the line in East Madison in 2009.

There have been debates about the location and the cost — and the associated debt — of the building since the idea first was hatched five years ago. Those issues were raised again Tuesday night at the Skowhegan Opera House, the last time the matter would be discussed publicly before the referendum Nov. 6.

“For a town of our size, don’t you think it’s a little bit of overkill?” one woman asked from the audience.

Plans for an $8.5 proposed combined fire and police station are on display Tuesday during a public hearing on the matter at the Skowhegan Opera House. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Fire Chief Shawn Howard said no, not these days and not for fire departments elsewhere in Maine. He compared population and cost with other towns, including Scarborough and Yarmouth, and Skowhegan’s proposal compared favorably.

“It’s not out of line,” he said.

Members of a Public Safety Committee formed to find a suitable location have said the town doesn’t own property suitable for such a structure and researched several properties and found the piece owned by Clarice B. Dunlop to be the best-suited.

The 12-member committee is made up of police and fire officials, the code enforcement officer, the road commissioner and a Somerset County commissioner from Skowhegan.

Newell Graf, a former Skowhegan selectman and the Somerset County commissioner serving on the search committee, said Tuesday that the timing of the project is wrong and that town taxpayers would face mounting pressure with added debt if the measure passes in November. He said he supports the cost of the project and the location but prefers to wait until some of the current borrowing debt is paid off.

“I was on the public safety building committee way back in 2013 when it first got started,” Graf said. “At the time we had a choice. We could fix our sewer issues once and for all, or we could have a new fire station, but we knew we couldn’t do both because of the cost.”

Graf said he felt it was more important to finish off the sewer separation project, which is under way, because of the proposed whitewater park planned for the Kennebec River. The search committee reformed in 2017, he said.

“I said from day one, I’m still in favor of having a new public safety building. I’m just not in favor of this timeline that they’re on,” Graf said.

He said the Skowhegan already has $13.1 million in bonds outstanding and unpaid. Borrowing another $8.5 million would bring the indebtedness to $21.6 million. With just over $3 million in interest, the total debt service to be paid on the public safety building bond would be about $11.7 million, according to the town treasurer’s financial statement on the project.

Selectwoman Betty Austin, who is also a state representative, said Aug. 28 that she worried that the bridge on Madison Avenue near Gifford’s Ice Cream could become snarled with traffic in an emergency, thus blocking the only route to the rest of town.

Selectman Eugene Rouse said his objection was not having the Police Department right downtown for easy citizen access.

Others also have expressed doubts about the proposed East Madison Road location — not the project itself. Some said in April that their concerns about the proposed location is that it’s on “the other side of town,” away from the hospital, the high school and other schools, the Sappi paper mill and the New Balance factory.

This parcel of land along East Madison Road near Dunlop Lane in Skowhegan is being considered for construction of a new town public safety building. Staff file photo by David Leaming

Another said that a new, state-of-the-art building should be visible from main traffic routes, showing that Skowhegan is a prosperous town.

Howard, the fire chief, said Skowhegan is divided into four fire districts and that the proposed site is in an area where 36 percent of all the fire calls originate. He said the proposed site is 1.4 miles from the current station. Howard added that 18 of the 22 firefighters live on that side of the Kennebec River.

Bucknam, the police chief, said the new location would not affect call times for police, as they are in patrol cruisers all over town.

Paul York, chairman of the Board of Selectmen and a member of the search committee, said that locating the new building anywhere close to downtown could mean taking existing property and “wiping out” land and buildings currently on the tax rolls; and it would be costly “before you even start digging the hole” for construction.

Others said Skowhegan was long overdue in upgrading its emergency delivery system. Town sewer lines would be extended from the area of Coldbrook Saab, and a pressure pump will be used to bring water to the building.

Resident Paul Natalie, who ran for a selectman’s seat in June, asked how the sitting Board of Selectmen felt about the proposal to borrow $8.5 million for a new combined station house.

Austin and Rouse said the cost was high but the building was needed.

Paul York said the costs are not likely to decline in the coming years.

“To me, this is the time to do it,” he said.

Board members Vanessa York and Roger Staples said the search committee had done its work, and now it’s time to bring the vote to the people on Nov. 6.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

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