The century-old Skowhegan Fire department building on Tuesday, April 24, 2018. Planning for a new public safety building for the police and fire departments is progressing after voters approved the project by a plurality of votes on Election Day and by a majority after a ranked choice voting count. Morning Sentinel file

SKOWHEGAN — Site plans and design items are being finalized as officials continue to make progress on the town’s new public safety building.

On Wednesday evening, the Public Safety Building committee met via Zoom, led by Fire Chief Shawn Howard.

Residents have voted for a combined fire and police station to be built on East Madison Road at an estimated cost of $8.9 million, following the results of a ranked-choice vote on Election Day 2020.

The project officially began Oct. 2, 2020. Following the projected timeline, the plan is to begin occupying the new space by the end of December 2022, though this date is subject to change. By the end of this week, the site plan, floor plans and elevation plans for the new site should be complete, Howard said.

From the beginning of the project, town officials, including Town Manager Christine Almand, Howard and Police Chief David Bucknam, have worked alongside architects and engineers to smooth over the details of a multi-step process.

Small changes have been made to the original site plan to make the best use of the space. Some square footage has been cut in this process, the fire chief said.

“While the floor plan was mostly done quite a while ago, we’ve been fine-tuning it basically in small moving parts here and there. We’ve made some changes to make things flow better and to make the best use out of the space that we have,” Howard said.

Other details, including wastewater disposal, whether the site will have a private septic system or connect to the municipal system, where power will be utilized and the cost, are still being assessed.

“I think it’s important to talk about green energy and whether or not we can develop solar on that property or whether or not geothermal is the right way to go. We want those questions answered and to make sure we’re at least looking at those options,” Howard said.

Though solar may not be the option selected initially, he said that it is possible in the future as costs change.

The East Madison Road option won both the plurality and ranked-choice vote tabulations. In the months since the election, officials have been working to finalize the contract with architects and work on pre-design and schematic design phases of the project.

The discussion regarding a new public safety building has been on the table for years. In October 2020, town officials met with the public both on Zoom and in-person at both police and fire departments. During these meetings, the public had the opportunity to see why new facilities were needed, with space restrictions being at the top of the list of needs for each department.

At the town’s only fire station on Island Avenue, built in 1904, Howard said that the current space is small and cramped and no longer meets the need for the size of the department and the equipment used. 

We have some spatial needs here. Some can be seen and some can’t. It’s small; it’s cramped, and it’s not laid out for today’s fire service,” Howard said. “It’s served the town well, but it’s time to replace it.” 

Skowhegan Fire Department is believed to be one of the oldest continuously operating firehouses in the state. The building, originally made for horses and buggies, is now cramped when all vehicles are inside and cannot properly accommodate the staff. The fire chief said that the department responds to between 700 and 800 calls a year.  

The Skowhegan Police Department has operated for decades in the basement of the Municipal Building on Water Street. Bucknam said that the department responds to about 26,000 calls a year. 

The new building will include many new amenities for both departments, including a gym setup for firefighters to work out in and a drive-thru bay for firetrucks.

About two-thirds of the space in the current police precinct is hallway. In the proposed plans for the new building, the chief has previously said that the square footage will be about the same, though the way it is being utilized will be different.

In a phone call Thursday, Bucknam said that he is trying to seek as much grant funding as possible to alleviate some of the cost on the inside of the building. So far, he has secured funding for patrol desks, around $30,000, as well as for wall lockers, estimated around $14,000.

“We will continue to utilize grants to the best of our ability to help offset some of the cost on taxpayers,” Bucknam said.

When complete, the new building will offer a redesigned locker room with bathrooms set up inside to allow officers to change and shower. A washer and dryer setup will also be provided, which the department does not have currently.

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