SKOWHEGAN — Residents and local officials continue to butt heads over the future of its police and fire department buildings. At a public hearing on Wednesday night, citizens voiced strong disapproval for the proposed public safety building that would unite police and fire teams under one roof. Several of those in attendance urged the town to provide them with more options, including the possibility of constructing the building in stages.

The town has been struggling to move past location and cost issues associated with the complex for five years. Most recently, voters approved the purchase of an 11.3-acre property on Dunlop Lane for the building at the Town Meeting in June. In November, however, residents rejected a $8.5 bond to finance the project in a 1,893 to 1,322 vote.

On Wednesday, the chief concerns for residents were money and skepticism about whether a singular building was the solution.

“You can eat an elephant spoon by spoon,” said Lynda Quinn. “Get the trucks out of the (current fire station) and then build the fire station in stages. It doesn’t have to be top of the line. Add on and add on until you get what you want. … It may not be cheaper, but it’s more palatable in the long-term.”

Some requested more precise quotes from the companies that could potentially be hired to construct the building.

“As a taxpayer, I would like to see the committee come up with different options other than just a public safety department. Give the town people some options and then some prices and then put it back to the voters,” said resident John Grohs.

The Skowhegan Police has been headquartered in the basement of the Water Street municipal building for decades. The fire station — which has been in use since it was constructed in 1904 — is on Island Avenue. It is believed to be the state’s oldest continuously operating firehouse. Skowhegan police and fire chiefs believe that housing both of their departments in one building would increase efficiency and cut utility costs for the town.

Relocating to the Dunlop Lane site — off of East Madison Road — would bring the hub of Skowhegan’s public safety operations away from downtown, though. Critics of the plan have pointed out that the move would add distance between the facility and several important locations, including the schools, hospital, Sappi paper mill and New Balance factory.

Jerry Scanlin, a Skowhegan resident, urged the select board to come up with a cheaper option for the town’s public safety buildings on Wednesday night.

Fire chief Shawn Howard and police chief David Bucknam both asserted that the shift in location would not negatively impact the speed of their departments’ emergency responses. Bucknam noted that police officers are consistently dispersed in cruisers across the town. Howard noted that the 18 out of 22 firefighters live on the side of the Kennebec River that the new building would be located at. He added that 36 percent of the department’s fire calls originate from that area.

Other concerns with the location of the proposed consolidated building included selectman Eugene Rouse’s idea that moving the police department away from Water Street would make it less accessible to the public. Selectwoman Betty Austin noted that traffic on the Madison Avenue bridge by Gifford’s Ice Cream could block the only route from the Dunlop Lane site to the rest of town.

Residents are also not pleased with the expenses involved with the project. The town already has $13.1 million in unpaid bonds, according to the town treasurer’s financial statement. In combination with the $3 million in interest that the public safety building bond would generate, the proposal would bring the town’s debt to $21.6 million.

Chairman Paul York said that the bills have piled up because the town’s select board has ignored addressing infrastructure problems for years in order to keep taxes down for its citizens.

“We constantly are listening to the taxpayers who say to keep it down, keep it down,” he said. “Then we find ourselves in this situation where some of the responses are, ‘How come we haven’t been putting money aside?’ Yeah, they should have started 20 years ago, but again, in order to do that one budget is going to be higher, so at some point the mil rate is going to go up and (select) boards were constantly trying to keep the mil rate down. … You keep waiting and waiting and waiting until you have to, and then these are all of the issues we’re facing. We’re just trying to be responsible.”

Howard has asserted that the proposal is in line with the costs for similar structures in Scarbrough and Yarmouth.

In November, Bucknam said that the 12-member Committee on Public Safety would be looking into other possible locations at which to construct a consolidated building. The Skowhegan code enforcement officer, road commissioner, police and fire officials and a Somerset County commissioner from Skowhegan sit on this committee.

There will be at least one additional public hearing in the next few months.

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @megrobbins


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