AUGUSTA — Most city councilors agree the city needs a new police station.

Some, however, question whether that station need be built to meet “critical facility” standards for public safety buildings, which would likely increase the cost of the project.

The codes are meant to ensure the building could remain functional during a natural disaster or other emergency.

City councilors, joined by three residents who were elected to the council in November but will not be sworn into office until the start of the new year, recently discussed a proposal to build a new police station to replace what officials have said is a dilapidated, worn-out and leaky station on Union Street.

City Manager William Bridgeo noted there is urgency to get going with the project because “there is universal agreement the existing facility, in the condition it’s in, is not an appropriate place for 65 of our employees to work out of,” and because construction costs have been on the rise recently so the cost of the project is likely to increase as time passes.

Most city councilors expressed agreement a new station is needed, and none have spoken publicly against building one, but last week one councilor and one councilor-elect requested more information about whether the new building would truly have to meet critical facilities, or Category 4, standards contained in building codes.

Such standards require public safety and other buildings considered essential to the public, such as hospitals, be built to higher standards, including that they be able to withstand high winds and other natural disasters — or even terrorist attacks — since such buildings, in an emergency, are critical to protecting the public.

Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti and Heather Pouliot, who was elected as an at-large city councilor but has not yet taken office, asked for more information from city administrators about what is required in the building’s design and construction in order to comply with building codes, and what is more along the lines of best practices that may be considered potentially beneficial, but not necessarily required.

Conti suggested some of the money to be spent on complying with such standards could be better spent building a new station in a rundown part of  downtown, where she said a new police station would bring a police presence and increase the quality of life in that part of the city.

“One thing I don’t understand, fully, is that this police station needs to be built to certain standards, standards developed by somebody after (the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks),” Conti said at a Nov. 14 City Council meeting, asking if those standards are federal requirements or recommendations.

“If you’re telling me I have to build a police department in Augusta, Maine, for a 911-type event, then we might as well be getting ready for a zombie apocalypse. We’re not spending our money where our needs are. It seems like we’re spending a lot of our money for the zombie apocalypse instead of helping our neighbors downtown.”

City officials hope to have the proposal ready in time to ask voters in March to approve a bond to borrow money for the project, which has been estimated to cost between $17.3 million and $21.5 million.

The cost of the project varies in large part based on where it would be built, with the potential sites for a new station narrowed down to two, one next to the current station on Union Street and the other a downtown site at the corner of Water and Laurel streets.

The downtown site would be the more expensive of the two, due in part to the challenges in building on the steeply inclined site surrounded by other buildings. But some, including Mayor David Rollins, have said the downtown site may cost more but could also bring more benefits to the city. The mayor noted there could be economic and community development that stems from putting a new station in what some consider a blighted part of the downtown in need of a boost.

The unlikelihood of it being able to meet Category 4 building code standards is a key reason officials do not recommend renovating the current station on Union Street.

Bridgeo said he and other city staff would research and answer the questions posed by councilors and report back to them in early December.

He said he hopes councilors will be close to a decision that the city should build a new station by January, so it could go to voters in March or, at least, June.

He said once there is agreement a new station is needed, where it should be built will be a policy decision for councilors to make, with input from the public that officials said would be sought before a decision is reached.

At-Large Councilor Mark O’Brien, who will leave office after his term expires at the end of the year, said he thinks it is too late for new potential sites for a police station to be considered beyond the two that have been vetted by city staff and consultants.

Bridgeo said so far the city has spent about $250,000 in studying the issue and potential sites for a new police station, including reports from architects, soil testing and a facility needs assessment.

Rollins expressed concern with the initial cost estimates for building a new station at either of the two potential sites. He said cost estimates should include the potential revenue the city could receive from selling the Union Street site if the station is built downtown, and the cost of making improvements to the northern end of downtown, even if the police station is built on Union Street because, he said, the city should still take steps to address the needs of downtown.

Councilors agreed there will be a need to explain to residents why a new police station is needed, since, regardless of where it would be built, it is going to be an expensive project.

“I’m hearing a lot of comment in the community that they don’t understand why we need a new police station,” Rollins said. “So the number one thing we’re going to have to overcome, no matter which site we go with, is we’ve got to make sure the information is out to the community.”


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