Falmouth council approves fire station grant bid, but seeks lower cost

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FALMOUTH — The Town Council has asked staff to cut back on plans to renovate Fire Station 4, even as it voted unanimously to approve an application the Fire Department made a month ago for federal stimulus money to help fund the $1 million project.

Requesting nearly $500,000 through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the proposal as it stands now would entail a 53 percent share – just over $553,000 – from Falmouth’s undesignated funds to make improvements and add space to the 30-year-old Winn Road station.

Plans for the building include a 20-by-70-foot, two-story addition; an elevator; a sprinkler system, and other safety upgrades.

Talk of the improvements to Engine 4 in West Falmouth have upset some residents who support keeping the Engine 3 Pleasant Hill Fire Station open, Town Manager Nathan Poore said. But he added the move to close Engine 3 was about its coverage area and call volume.

“Your two main stations for the future of this town are going to be West Falmouth and Central stations,” Poore said.

He said volunteers previously stationed at Engine 3 have been placed elsewhere.

“The ones (from Engine 3) that are active are just the ones that were active before,” Fire Chief Howard Rice added.

Councilor Tony Payne said while he didn’t “want to be penny-wise and pound-foolish,” he hadn’t heard anyone saying the Engine 4 station was “in need” and challenged the town to differentiate between wants and needs when spending more than $500,000. He also asked if there might be a better location for Engine 4, perhaps closer to the Maine Turnpike, that could be less expensive than the million-dollar cost of the renovations.

Rice said other locations had not been considered, but said the improvements proposed now would carry the station for the next 15 to 20 years, even if the town switched to a full-time staffed department.

Through the revised Town Charter, councilors have the authority to
allocate up to $1 million without a public hearing or a referendum. But
at the July 13 council meeting, they chose to hold a public hearing
before making their decision.

Only one person spoke during the hearing. Mark Soule, who was unsuccessful in his bid for election to the council last spring, said he agree with Payne: “a lot of money for a lot of wants.” In a phone interview Tuesday, Soule said he was disappointed that others hadn’t turned out for the public hearing.

“I would like to see more people take an active role in their government,” he said. “We harp on our town officials, but we don’t give them any verbal feedback.”

But as discussion continued at the meeting, councilors were clearly in conflict between the chance, if a grant were secured, to improve the fire station for half the cost, and the responsibility to economize by peeling off improvements that aren’t absolutely necessary.

Though she praised the staff for putting the application together, Chairwoman Cathy Breen said councilors have made it clear that they intend to be financially cautious. But she said she had “a lot of faith in what our staff says they need for the next 20 years” and called it a good investment.

In the last few minutes of a discussion that lasted 90 minutes, Breen made a motion to approve submission of the grant while asking staff to determine where the plan could be pared back, with the intent of keeping a 53 percent match. Though councilors do not yet have the final figures, the motion passed unanimously, with the understanding that final approval for the expenditures would come at a later date.

Poore told the council he would sit down with Rice, the contractor and the architect to look at ways to cut costs. He anticipated the results would be available for the council’s first meeting in September.

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or proberts@theforecaster.net.