First steps for new municipal building taken

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SCARBOROUGH — For almost a decade, town staff and councilors have been trying to decide just when to begin the process of replacing the aged building that houses the police and fire stations.

That time may finally be coming.

Last Wednesday, Oct. 19, the council voted in a first reading to form an ad hoc Public Safety Complex Building Committee, tasking the members – a mix of residents, town councilors, staff and public safety personnel – to begin researching options and “engaging qualified consultants” to figure out how to best replace the structure, Town Manager Tom Hall said at the meeting.

The 11-member committee would include Police Chief Robbie Moulton, Fire Chief Michael Thurlow, two councilors, an engineer and residents.

Aspects to be considered with a new public safety building include how much room will be needed for future growth, energy efficiency, site analysis and schematics.

In a second reading in early November, the council is also slated to vote on using $50,000 from the public safety building capital improvement account for consulting services.

Replacing the public safety building is part of a long-term municipal facilities plan the council discussed in March that prioritized public buildings that need to be upgraded over the next 10-25 years. Other projects include expanding both the library and the Town Hall, and, in the long term, a new Community Services Center.

In 2008, the town completed a site plan analysis and conceptual report for a new public safety building, with the intention of pushing the project to referendum. The projected cost of a new, 46,000-square-foot building was then pegged at $13.8 million.

The plan, however, which identified the land adjacent to the Maine Veterans Home at 290 Route 1 as the new building site, fell through. The new station was pushed aside to make room for a new Wentworth Intermediate School, which was under construction from 2011-14.

The effort to rebuild a new public safety facility has now resurfaced at the top of the list  – barring any other capital improvement projects that could bump it down the line again.

The fire department side of the building, at 246 Route 1, was built in 1964. Fire Chief Michael Thurlow has spent his entire 40-year career in the building, and has made do with its limitations, of which there are plenty.

In 1989, the two-story section of the building was built to the south to house the police department; from the time the doors opened almost 30 years ago, “each office space was filled,” Police Chief Robbie Moulton said this week.

That same space now houses three times as many employees, with several new positions and departments that didn’t exist in the late 1980s, including a crime analyst, a records clerk, a video forensics department, a polygraph department and a school resource officer. Space is so tight that many of the files have to be stored off site.

“It’s overwhelming,” Moulton said.

On the fire department side, a lack of adequate space has forced offices into unlikely places – such as the deputy fire chief’s office, which is now inside a former holding cell that lacks windows and ventilation.

Copy machines and other items that can’t fit into offices jut into the hallways. Fingerprinting is done in a stairwell, and Breathalyzer tests are conducted next to the area where employees eat lunch.

When residents or new businesses need municipal licenses, they meet with staff at a long table that also serves as a break room where employees eat lunch. It’s also only a few feet from the department’s only restrooms.

“It’s embarrassing,” Thurlow said.

Inadequate space is also interfering with program expansions that are necessary at central fire station, like work space for new call members and housing space for live-in student firefighters.

“I can’t have anyone spend the night because there’s no room,” Thurlow said.

The lack of space on the police side has more repercussions when it comes to privacy and confidentiality. With the addition of the Operation Hope program, which has placed more than 200 individuals with opioid addictions into treatment centers, officers often have very sensitive, personal conversations with those seeking treatment.

While there is one small room with a door where private conversations can take place, if the room is being used, the only other space is a two-walled cubicle in the corner of the police department lobby. Conversations there can be heard by anyone leaving or entering the station.

Unlike other businesses and organizations, limitations of manpower and space in public safety can’t be a factor when deciding whether to respond to a situation or take on new services.

“In our business, we have to deal with what comes along, (and) we can never really say no; we find a way to provide that service, but that doesn’t mean we’re efficient at it or have the space to do it,” Moulton said.

Exacerbating the lack of space is the physical deterioration of the building, including a heating and cooling system that doesn’t sync. For years, Moulton, whose office is in the north corner on the second floor, has dealt with major drainage problems from his office windows. Finally, he installed a pipe that drains into a recycling container behind his desk chair. 

At the Oct. 19 council meeting, Councilor Kate St. Clair said the need for a new public safety building is “not just an aesthetic issue; it’s a safety issue,” and a “need that desperately needs to be addressed.”

Thurlow said, as far as funding goes, “We recognize that everything is a balancing act; we know we have to wait our turn.”

“We’re just at a point where you can only arrange your living room furniture so many ways,” Moulton said.

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.

Scarborough Fire Chief Michael Thurlow, shown here in his office at the city’s central fire department, and Police Chief Michael Thurlow, say they are in dire need of a new building to house their respective departments. Replacing the outdated facility might finally come to the forefront this year, as the Town Council is poised to approve an ad hoc committee.

Filled to capacity years ago, both the Scarborough fire and police departments have had to make do with limited space. Deputy Fire Chief Glen Deering’s office was moved into a former jail cell that lacks windows or proper ventilation.

A makeshift drainage pipe in Scarborough Police Chief Robbie Moulton’s office that has to be emptied daily. The building has other shortcomings that would be addressed if the Council goes ahead with an ad hoc committee to address a new public safety building.

Fire Operations Capt. Nate Contreras makes copies in the main corridor of the fire station which leads to the department’s only conference room, which is also the only employee breakroom. Councilors will vote next month whether to form an ad hoc committee to research a new public safety building.

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.