A concept rendering for the proposed Willow Street site for a new Augusta Police Department station. Image courtesy of Artifex Architects & Engineers/Manns Woodward Studios

AUGUSTA — The decision of whether to build a new police station, on Willow Street at the vacant site of a former Hannaford supermarket, is now up to voters.

In their first formal vote on the proposal, city councilors unanimously decided Thursday to ask residents to approve borrowing $20.5 million to build a new police station.

Councilors and Mayor David Rollins have long indicated they agree the city needs a new station to replace what officials have said is an outdated, leaky, and structurally inadequate station on Union Street.

Residents will indicate whether they agree a new station should be built in a June 15 referendum. Councilors also voted Thursday to consolidate the polls for that election, so voting will take place only at the Augusta Civic Center.

Rollins suggested that between now and then, city officials should make the case to the public for why a new station is needed.

City Manager William Bridgeo said if authorized by city councilors, he would be willing to play a role in explaining the need for the new station. But he said that would not be an appropriate role for him, or other city staff, to take unless councilors indicate that is their desire.

Bridgeo noted city councilors are free to weigh-in and advocate for the new station, including through letters to the editor of the newspaper, through social media and in-person to residents.

“We’ll make sure the public case that has been developed (of the need for a new station) is out there so that anybody has access to it,” Bridgeo told councilors.

Rollins suggested discussing how best to make the case for the new station at next week’s council meeting.

Problems with the existing police station include a leaky roof, it does not meet current critical facility building code standards, water cannot be consumed due to lead contamination in the pipes, bathrooms and locker rooms have rotted flooring and rusty stalls, inadequate heat, security problems due to a lack of separation between public, semipublic and restricted areas, a dispatch center with no room to expand, no centrally located evidence holding room, and a need for secure parking.

Councilors have debated building a new police station since at least 2018, although progress toward that goal was stalled by the coronavirus pandemic.

The property is currently owned by sisters through a corporation, JOFKAM CO., and in May councilors authorized Bridgeo and city attorney Steve Langsdorf to enter into negotiations to purchase the site, which has been listed at a sales price of $2.2 million.

Bridgeo has said an appraisal the city had done on the property valued it at about $1.9 million.

He said Friday talks with the property owners are ongoing and will likely largely come down to price, not whether to sell the property.

“There has been no unwillingness from the owners to work with the city,” Bridgeo said. “Discussions are going back and forth.”

He said he does not believe a contract must be in place to buy the property before the borrowing proposal goes to voters June 15.

An Augusta police vehicle parks outside the former grocery store on Willow Street on Feb. 17, the proposed site of a new Augusta Police Station. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file Buy this Photo

Four years remain on a lease Hannaford has with the owners for the building there. The supermarket chain had a store at that location before a new Hannaford was built up the hill, at the site of the former Cony High School, but does not use the building now.

City officials anticipate Hannaford officials are likely willing to pay the city to get out of the remaining time of that lease, further reducing the city’s costs to build a new station there.

Under the terms of the lease, Bridgeo said Hannaford would likely pay about $1.3 million, plus taxes and insurance, to keep leasing the vacant building for the next four years.

A public hearing took place on the proposal Thursday, a requirement of the city charter for any bond proposal, at the council’s online-only meeting, but no members of the public spoke out on the proposal.

“In actuality the public is really going to weigh in in June, when they vote yay or nay on the proposed $20 million police station project,” Bridgeo said.

The spot is across Cony Street from Augusta City Center, and across the Kennebec River from downtown Water Street. It is nearly adjacent to the Inn at City Hall where the Police Department was located years ago, before being moved to its current home on Union Street. The former supermarket building still on the site would be demolished and a new building constructed.

The major point of debate for councilors was not whether to build a new station, but where. Some had pushed for a downtown site, at the corner of Water and Laurel streets, while others favored building a new station next to the existing one on Union Street.

Councilors eventually compromised on the Willow Street site, which they said will bring development to a centrally located spot in need of rejuvenation that does not have the physical limitations and higher projected costs of the site proposed for the corner of Water and Laurel streets. And it would free up the existing Union Street police station for a potential deal with the Augusta Housing Authority, which is looking to develop housing and offices there.

The city and housing authority officials have previously discussed a price of about $650,000 for the site.

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