By Mark Good and Liz Graves
The idea of building a dedicated fire training facility on a 3-acre property at Mount Desert Island High School has been kicked around since 2011, but the island’s fire chiefs are hoping to move forward this year with funds for a final design and an agreement to operate the site.
Selectmen in Mount Desert and Tremont discussed the status of the project with their respective fire chiefs this week and expressed support. It’s also expected to come before Southwest Harbor selectmen and the Bar Harbor Town Council this month.
If the details can be worked out in time, voters in the four MDI towns may be asked to approve funding for design at 2018 town meetings.
“There are still so many variables and questions,” Mount Desert Fire Chief Mike Bender told selectmen in that town Monday. “One of the towns needs to keep this moving forward, to have a real vision of what this is going to be.”
In early 2014, the fire chiefs identified a 3-acre wooded site just off Eagle Lake Road at the high school as a possible location for the training facility. An engineering and environmental assessment of the property in 2015 determined that the site was “generally suitable” for the proposed facility.
Mount Desert selectmen asked Bender how much the facility would cost to operate once it was built. A similar facility operated by the city of Ellsworth is used several months a year by the county fire training academy and is available on a fee-for-use basis.
An MDI facility also could be opened to other agencies on a fee-for-use basis, Bender said, but the towns should not count on that as a significant funding source.
The fire departments on Swans Island, the Cranberry Isles and Frenchboro have said they aren’t interested in participating in funding the new facility, Bender said. But Acadia National Park fire officials have expressed interest in partnering with the towns on the project, he said.
In Tremont, selectmen voted 4-0 Tuesday to support the fire training facility and explore an agreement for its construction and operation.
“It’s probably going to be a $2 million project,” Fire Chief Keith Higgins said.
The investment could pay off through an increase in the number of volunteer firefighters, thereby eliminating the need for paid personnel, the chief told selectmen. As mandated training has increased for fire departments, there has been a corresponding drop in volunteers.
Interim Town Manager Dana Reed, who has been part of League of Towns discussions about the project, said a local training facility had been identified as crucial to maintaining the viability of the island’s fire departments.
“It would help retain existing firefighters and recruit new ones,” Reed said.
Selectmen were on board with the idea but had questions about how the construction would be funded.
While there might be grants and private sources of funding, Higgins said he didn’t want to mislead selectmen about the full cost to the town. One possibility, he said, is for the four towns to split the cost using the same formula used for funding Mount Desert Island High School.
Reed suggested another method.
“My thought is I would like to see bills split up like the League of Towns,” he said.
Shared costs among the towns in the league are divided by a formula that uses 50 percent on the municipality’s population according to the latest census and 50 percent of its property valuation, Reed said.
The high school trustees voted in December 2015 to endorse the concept of having a fire training facility on school property.
Eero Hedefine, president of Hedefine Engineering & Design in Ellsworth, submitted a proposal in October for designing the project, estimating construction costs, getting the necessary permits and handling the bidding process.
“It is unclear who exactly the owner is for this project and thus for whom we will work,” Hedefine noted in the proposal.