MOUNT DESERT — A case of sticker shock has caused the Board of Selectmen to hit the pause button on consideration of a proposed new fire/EMS station in Northeast Harbor. The estimated cost is $7.5 million.
“I was thinking maybe half that, and when I saw $7 million, I thought, ‘Holy cow!’” Selectman Wendy Littlefield said.
Selectman Matt Hard had the same reaction: “When I saw that number…I was like ‘Wow! That’s a substantial number.’”
Selectman Martha Dudman said the $7.5 million cost estimate is a problem for her, as well.
“We’re in such precarious times right now, and I think it’s up to this board to hold town expenses in check,” she said. “I would hate to have this town undertake another big construction project when we still haven’t finished the last one.”
Dudman apparently was referring to the rebuilding of Main Street in Northeast Harbor.
“I think it’s a lot of ask of our taxpayers,” she said.
Fire Chief Mike Bender said in a report to the selectmen last November that, due to a continuing shortage of volunteers, the town would need to hire more full-time firefighters to provide adequate around-the-clock coverage.
“Current facilities prohibit the addition of full-time staff,” he said in a memo to Town Manager Durlin Lunt.
He said the proposed expansion of the fire department and ambulance facilities would provide space for “staff living quarters including bunk rooms, a day room, kitchen facilities, meeting space, maintenance shop, additional truck bay and other needs to be identified during the design.”
In July, the selectmen authorized Bender to pay Hedefine Engineering & Design of Ellsworth up to $27,000 to develop a concept plan for a new building to house the Mount Desert Fire Department and Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service.
Bender reemphasized that the primary reason a new building is needed is the continuing loss of volunteer firefighters.
“A majority of people we have right now are getting burned out and they’re aging out,” he said. “And probably within one, two or three years you’re going to start seeing calls not being responded to at night.”
Bender told the selectmen Monday, “The type of people who are buying houses and moving into town are not the type who are willing to go to a fire academy for six months and put in 300 hours to learn to become a qualified firefighter or to put in probably the same number of hours to be a certified EMT.”
He said the fire department will need to hire at least two more full-time firefighters within the next few years to ensure around-the-clock coverage, and that will require a place for firefighters to be housed.
Hedefine’s preliminary cost estimate for the new fire/EMS station project includes $6.8 million for construction, furnishings and technology and $700,000 for architect’s and engineer’s fees and construction administration.
Bender said in a memo to Lunt that accompanied Hedefine’s cost estimates, “This new facility will be our opportunity to create a station that fits the way we operate now and well into the future.
“It should enhance our operations and safety and improve efficiency. The result will be reflected in quicker response times, adequate staffing and a boost in morale among both career and on-call firefighters.”
The site selected for the proposed new station is a wooded knoll at the intersection of Sea Street and Harbor Drive, across the parking lot from the Town Hall, which houses the municipal offices, police department and the existing fire station.
Bender said that site was chosen for several reasons including the fact that it is already owned by the town.
“The entire village of Northeast Harbor was investigated for other suitable locations, but none could be found without adding project cost for land purchasing,” he said in his memo to Lunt. “In my opinion, this location makes the most sense operationally, fiscally and geographically.”
But Dudman on Monday expressed opposition to building at that site.
“I’m still not convinced that we need another gigantic building in the marina,” she said. “I think it’s a shame to put a big, utilitarian building, no matter how beautiful, right there. But the biggest problem for me is the cost.”
She asked if it would be feasible for the town buy a house somewhere nearby to house on-duty firefighters and EMS personnel.
“Logistically, you wouldn’t want to do that,” Bender responded. “You want your staff in the station, next to the truck, next to the equipment.”
He noted that, in recent years, the town has invested in building a new marina and highway garage “and is now rebuilding Main Street to make it more attractive for businesses.”
“So, I would think you would want to do what you can to try to assure those moving into town and trying to build businesses that you’re going to do all you can for public safety and protect the assets we have,” Bender added. “I understand that (the proposed new building) is a lot of money, but are you willing to draw the line at public safety? Is that where you want to stop the spending?”
Several selectmen assured Bender that protecting public safety is their top priority
“I wholeheartedly support this [new facility] and realize the move to career firefighters is absolutely necessary for our community,” Hart said.
“I hate focusing on the dollar amount, but as part of the job that the five of us [on the board] have, we have to look at that.”
He expressed concern that, if the selectmen endorse a $7.5 million plan for a new building, the funding might not be approved by voters at Town Meeting.
“If this gets hung up at town meeting, what’s that going to do to our stated goal of moving to a more career firefighter model?”
Board Chairman John Macauley acknowledged that the proposed new building would be “very expensive.” But he noted that the total valuation of the town’s taxable property is more than $2 billion.
“I think we have a duty to provide fire safety to our taxpayers,” he said.
Mount Desert resident Stephanie Reece agreed, saying, “We are one of the wealthiest communities in Maine. I know people have issues with where it’s going to go, what it’s going to cost. But I think people are starting to realize that we have got to do something.”
Public Works Director Tony Smith said he, too, thinks the fire department needs a new home.
“Yes, it’s expensive, but you get what you pay for. It’s got what we need right now and a little bit more.”
Basil Mahaney, of the Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service, said his organization is “definitely on board with doing something.”
“We are very much in the same situation as the fire department,” he said. “We’ve outgrown our space. We’re making it work, but this is something we definitely need to address relatively soon,”
Smith suggested – and the selectmen agreed – to put their discussion of a proposed new fire/EMS facility on hold for a few weeks. Bender supported the pause, as well.
“Hopefully, we can chew on this for a few weeks and then come back and maybe come up with some other ideas and, hopefully, come to a consensus and move forward,” he said.
It was suggested that one possible option is to go back to the original concept plans, developed last January, for enlarging the existing fire station in the Town Hall rather than building a new facility.
“We’ll dust off those plans…and look at that a little bit harder,” Bender said. “I still don’t think it’s a good idea, but we’ll look at it again and see if maybe we can do something with that.”