South Portland signs 98-year lease with Willard fire company

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The city will sign a 98-year lease with the independent firefighting company in the Willard neighborhood, substantially increasing its stake in the future of the company. 

City Councilors approved the lease agreement 5-1 at its meeting Monday. Mayor Patti Smith opposed the deal because of its long term.

The agreement formalizes what South Portland Fire Chief Kevin Guimond called a “long-standing handshake lease.” The city will be the legal tenant of the fire station at 20 Pilsbury St., which is owned by Willard Engine and Ladder Company, Engine 2, until 2110. 

The city will pay $1,250 per year to lease the building. The deal gives the city the right to improve and expand the facility.

In the process, they may be saving the independent company from ruin.

The Willard company formed in 1904, 20 years before the city started a full-time, public fire department. Today, it operates as an independent nonprofit, though its firefighters are still approved and dispatched by the permanent city fire department. The 20 Willard firefighters work from a ladder truck and pumper truck owned by the city.

Members of the Willard company are paid $14-20 per hour for each call to which they respond, depending on the firefighter’s experience.

South Portland Deputy Fire Chief Miles Haskell got his start with the Willard company in 1953, when he was still in high school. Traditionally, he said, the company raised money by holding Bingo games, but that nowadays the line is tight.

Aside from the $1,250 the city’s gives each year, the company has essentially no income, he said. The lease agreement with the city ensures a future for the company, he said. 

“We’ve just made our expenses, but if anything catastrophic happened, we’d be stuck with it,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “This is a win-win for our company and for the city.”

City Manager Jim Gailey said the deal will allow the city to ensure its assets – the two fire trucks housed at Willard – will stay protected and available. It also gives the city enough stake in the company to pursue its long term plan to add additional bays and update the company’s fitness/training room.

“They’re the busiest call company we have,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “The last thing we want is for the company to come into small numbers and not be able to have a company up there.”

The full-time, permanent city fire department has 67 employees, including 63 firefighters. They’re assisted by the call companies at Willard, Pleasantdale and Thornton Heights. For years, another call company operated out of Ferry Village, but it consolidated with the Willard company in 2009.

The three call companies cost the city about $95,000 per year, Guimond said. That’s less than two full-time firefighters cost, he said. 

Aside from giving his department a means to grow capacity, the deal also makes sure the Willard firefighters are taken care of, he said.

“We want them to have a really nice home, because they do a lot of great work for very little money,” he said. “This is a cooperative event.”

Mayor Smith and Councilor Tom Blake had concerns about the long-term nature of the lease – Gailey said it would be city’s longest, by far – but Gailey and Guimond both said the time is necessary to ensure the city gets its money worth if it undertakes major renovations.

That response was sufficient for Blake, but not Smith.

“I believe in the call company, and the vision, but I think it could be accomplished in a shorter amount of time,” she said Monday.

Guimond defended the lease Wednesday, saying it essentially allows the fire department to use the station as it wishes. The lease would allow the city to use the building for meetings, as an emergency command station in event of a major emergency, and as storage for the fire department.

“Why would the taxpayers want to put money into an asset they don’t control?” he said. “By signing a 98-year lease, we basically control that station for the next century.”

Councilor Jerry Jalbert also said the rent, about $104 per month, is a steal, especially since there’s no clause in the lease for rent to increase with inflation.

“This is a very good deal for the city,” he said Monday.

In other City Council business on Monday:

• Councilors gave final approval to a policy that would impose a $100-$500 fine on property owners who contaminate their recycling with dirty, unrecylable trash. The city has paid $45,000 in fines to ecomaine – $88 per ton – in the past year. The city hopes the fines, and the city’s ability to take recycling bins away from repeat offenders, will solve the problem.

• The council approved a 1 percent base wage increase for Parks and Public Works employees in Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 481.

• Councilors accepted $95,000 in federal grants for the city’s fire and police departments to equip and train a dive team and purchase an emergency boat.

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.

Sidebar Elements

Willard Ladder and Engine Company’s ladder truck rises 110 feet into the air to the cheers of children who had gathered around to watch the ladder rise into the sky during WillardFest on July 16, 2011.