'We're working in the 1950s': Public Works complex doesn't work for South Portland

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Replacing the Public Works Department facility on O’Neil Street will be an expensive endeavor.

At an estimated $10 million, it’s by far the most expensive item on next year’s capital improvement budget.

But there’s a laundry list of reasons the project tops the list of priorities for City Manager Jim Gailey: Old technology is housed in even older buildings. Equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars is left outside, tempting rust, because there’s not enough garage space. Storage space is made wherever there’s room. Whole buildings lay decrepit and condemned. And a growing neighborhood is weary of the noise and the blight.

“I would say it’s very inadequate over there,” Gailey said.

“We’re operating one of our largest departments, a front-line department that we have in the city, out of 1930s and 1940s buildings,” he said. “It’s not efficient, and it’s not serving us well in creating the efficiencies we need to create in that complex.”

During a tour this week, workers pointed out the outdated conditions they work in.

“This is the ticking time bomb,” said Steve Masters, a mechanic, pointing at a natural gas-fueled emergency welder in a tight room off the main garage bay. Two feet from the gas welder sat a compressor. Compressors sometimes make sparks.

On the other side of the welder was the electrical system’s breaker box. It still sports barrel fuses, rather than an up-to-date circuit-breaker system.

“We blow breakers all the time,” Masters said. “We have electricians who won’t even touch the place because it’s such a horror show.”

The garage was built in the early 20th century. It has three bays and limited storage and office space. In his office, Masters rolls his chair over asbestos tiles. There’s only one lift in the garage, so mechanics spend a lot of time lying on their backs. 

The cement floors of the garage are chipped and cracked, and water and whatever other liquids escape the vehicles under repair flows into an outdated drainage system connected to public sewer lines. Tools are left wherever there’s room for them, which Masters said leaves them exposed to damage.

“We’re working in the 1950s,” he said. 

The Public Works Department owns between 40 and 50 vehicles: plows, construction vehicles, sand/salt trucks and others. There’s room to store seven indoors, plus whatever vehicles are being worked on in the garage.

Public Works Supervisor Joe Colucci said that while the city has done a great job buying quality vehicles over the past 10 years, the lifespan of each is cut dramatically because they are exposed to the elements.

“We spend a lot on vehicles, but it’s all just left outside to rust,” Colucci said.

The department has strict policy of washing every vehicle after it’s used, but there’s no undercarriage washing system. Colucci said there’s only so much washing that can be done by a worker lying on his back under a bus, wearing a rain slicker and goggles.

New facility in the works

For Gailey, getting those vehicles inside is a major benefit of a new facility.

“The important part is getting that kind of equipment inside and out of the elements of the weather,” he said. “Those pieces of equipment aren’t cheap. To be able to get those inside will give us a few more years. We won’t see the wear and tear, the rusting, happening so fast.”

The city is putting together a plan for a new complex at the Transfer Station property on Highland Avenue. All the work now done on O’Neil Street would move there, sharing office spaces and equipment. That built-in efficiency will save money in the long run, Gailey said. 

A concept design for a 60,000-square-foot building to hold 60 vehicles, a significantly remodeled bus garage and a consolidated office for Public Works, Transportation and Parks and Recreation is in the works. The goal is to have indoor space for every piece of equipment. 

This isn’t the first time a plan has been proposed to update Public Works. In 2004, a study was commissioned to analyze the existing facility. It recommended several upgrades and expansions.

But in 2005, a $4.8 million referendum to purchase the former Durastone building on Wallace Avenue for a new complex was defeated, 506-472.

A noisy neighbor

Sebago Technics is working on designs for a one- or two-story building off Highland Avenue. If all goes according to Gailey’s plan, the O’Neil Street complex will be liquidated and the land sold for residential development.

That would likely be a welcome change for residents of Meeting House Hill, the neighborhood that surrounds the existing Public Works complex. 

The O’Neil Street complex is a sprawling, six-acre property where vehicles are moved, refueled and serviced. Sand and salt are loaded and unloaded. Employees sometimes work around the clock.

Many homeowners’ back yards abut the property. In the back of the lot, out-of-use trucks and assorted construction materials sit fallow, less than 50 feet from a neighbor’s back door.

And while the Public Works facility may have been there longer than many of the homes, that doesn’t make its operations any less annoying to neighbors.

“Historically, the neighborhood has been very patient with those departments,” Gailey said. “But as time goes on, we hear more and more complaints about yelling in the yard all hours of the day and night, back-up signals, just general operations, really. Especially when the snow operations are going.”

And while the evidence is anecdotal, the location of the Public Works facility could be having a deleterious effect on the housing market in Meeting House Hill: A two-story, single-family home right next to the complex gate has been on the market for more than a year.

“I don’t envy him having to sell that house,” Colucci said.

What’s next?

Gailey and his staff will meet next week with engineers to discuss the next step in planning the expansion and move of the garage. City councilors on Monday passed a first reading of Gailey’s CIP budget, which included the $10 million Public Works plan. 

If the project survives the upcoming budget process, it will have to win voter approval before moving forward. The $10 million price tag – or wherever the cost ends up – will have to be approved by voters.

Gailey said that even though the smaller $4.8 million project failed in 2005, he thinks voters will approve this larger project as long as they see how badly it’s needed.

“We’re hoping that once we show the community the facts behind the current facility and the efficiency we’re missing out on, the facility that we’re making our workers work within, voters will understand the need and priority of moving in the direction of replacement,” he said.

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.

Sidebar Elements

South Portland Public Works Department mechanic Steve Masters works on a street sweeper Monday, March 19, at the department garage on O’Neil Street. Masters said he and his fellow mechanics work in cramped, outdated conditions.

A home on Hillside Avenue butts up against the Public Works Department facility on O’Neil Street in South Portland, where trucks and construction materials sit in a muddy lot behind the home. The Meeting House Hill neighborhood has grown around the facility, and neighbors complain about the noise the department creates.

The Public Works Department garage at 42 O’Neil St. in South Portland.