AUGUSTA — Replacing the current, worn-out police station with a new one for between $17.3 million and $21.5 million would still be a better value than renovating the current facility, officials said this week.

That is in part because either a new facility or an extensively renovated one would be required to meet costly building code standards meant to make sure public safety buildings would be the last buildings standing and available for use when natural disasters or other emergencies strike.

Police Chief Jared Mills told city councilors Thursday, citing consultants’ studies, that renovating the current police station on Union Street to replace its leaking roof and ensure it could meet current “Category 4” critical facility building code standards would cost at least $9 million. The station is in a former Naval Reserve building built in 1949 that the city bought for $1 two decades ago.

The $9 million cost estimate does not include the cost of temporarily relocating the station elsewhere, if a suitable location can be found, during renovations.

“We can bring our building up to standards but we’d move right back into the same old, inefficient building,” Mills said. “This building was never designed to be a police station in the first place.”

Because police stations are public safety buildings, codes now require them to be built to higher standards, with a stronger structure more able to withstand natural or other disasters than most other buildings.

Ward 1 City Councilor Linda Conti questioned whether building to that higher standard is really necessary, or really required, and has noted that the money spent reinforcing such a structure could perhaps be better spent addressing real needs in the community. She said a police station doesn’t seem likely to be used as an emergency shelter should disaster strike.

“What code says that is required, because no one has shown me that yet,” Conti said at Thursday’s Augusta City Council meeting. “I’d really like to see that because I’m really opposed to this Category 4 stuff. If we want to have a building in the city that is the last building standing, we need to have a community discussion about that. If we don’t have a plan for what we’re going to do in an emergency, it’s just a waste of money.”

A rendering of what a proposed Augusta Police station could look like if it was built on Union Street. The rendering was shown as part of a presentation by a pair of firms, Artifex Architects and Engineers and Manns Woodward Studios. Image courtesy of the City of Augusta

Matt Nazar, development director, said the Category 4 standard is part of international building codes which, in turn, are incorporated into a building code adopted by the state of Maine municipalities are required to follow, the Maine Uniform Building Code and Uniform Energy Code, or MUBEC.  He said they are mandatory but said later enforcement of them in Maine is spotty. Though he noted that doesn’t mean the city shouldn’t follow them.

City Manager William Bridgeo said no architect would put their stamp on plans for a public safety building, which would be needed to put the project out to bid, unless it has been designed to Category 4 standards.

Problems with the current station include a leaky roof, water that can’t be consumed due to lead contamination in the pipes, bathroom and locker rooms with rotted flooring and rusty stalls, asbestos, security problems due to a lack of separation between public, semi-public and restricted areas, a dispatch center with no room to expand from its current three terminals, the lack of a centrally located evidence holding room which Mills said makes it more difficult to maintain a proper chain of custody which, if not maintained, could be called into question in court, and a lack of secure parking.

A rendering of what a proposed Augusta Police station could look like if it was built on Water Street. The rendering was shown as part of a presentation by a pair of firms, Artifex Architects and Engineers and Manns Woodward Studios. Image courtesy of the City of Augusta

The Category 4 requirements would kick in if substantial renovations are made to the current building. Mills said replacing the roof, which he said is a must, would be enough to require the building to be brought up to those standards.

Several city councilors said Thursday it seems clear the city needs a new police station. They spoke of the importance of communicating that need to city residents, who, if the project is to go forward, would need to vote to borrow money for it in a referendum Bridgeo said could take place as soon as March.

With councilors seemingly on board with building a new station, the location of the new station is still being debated, with choices now narrowed to building next to the current station, or at a downtown site, where a large brick building would need to be demolished, at the corner of Water and Laurel streets.

Mills noted a new station, regardless of where it is built, would be designed to allow police to be more efficient as they do their jobs. He said the city’s police officers are growing weary of working in the worn-out, leaky and drafty old station. Mills said the current station can be an inefficient place to work, citing that when a roof leak occurs any officers who work in the area around it have to focus on dealing with the leak. He also said an officer recently had to go out to buy bottled water, because the tap water in the station is undrinkable and a delivery of bottled water had been delayed.

“Those are resources we’re wasting — you’ve got police officers in uniform taking time to go get bottled water when they could be out doing work,” he said. “Ask any of my staff, over the last five years, what they thought our goals should be for the year, they’d say, the building, the building, the building. Do something and move us. We can no longer be here anymore.”

Bridgeo said if voters turn down funding to build a new station, he would worry about police officers’ morale.

Mills said so far the workforce has been great about dealing with the situation but the station is not a building they are proud of.

Mills can be viewed, in a tour of the station, explaining the problems with it in a YouTube video, part of his “Chat with the Chief,” videos.

At-Large City Councilor Darek Grant said it seems crystal clear the city needs a new police station. He said any residents with questions about it can contact their city councilors. Bridgeo said officials are willing to show residents the building so they can see its condition for themselves.

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