HALLOWELL — Longtime Fire Chief Mike Grant said the future of the city’s fire protection services may come down to money. But he wants everyone to know that his firefighters provide something that can’t be quantified with dollars and cents.

“You’ve got folks who are very dedicated to this city,” Grant said during a meeting of the city’s Fire Services Committee Tuesday. “They are willing to do anything for this city.”

The committee met for more than two hours last week and has scheduled another meeting for 5 p.m. Thursday at City Hall to continue discussing a number of scenarios laid out by City Manager Nate Rudy for the future of fire services in the riverfront city. Rudy hopes the committee will come to a consensus and make a recommendation to the City Council at its Sept. 12 meeting.

SEVERAL OPTIONS

The four plans presented last week included disbanding the Hallowell fire department and contracting fire services to Augusta; sharing the Farmingdale station but operating as a separate department while building a substation in Hallowell at Stevens School; reconstructing the Second Street station, leaving the department as is; or building a new public safety facility at Stevens School that would also house the police department and emergency management.

“A fifth scenario would be creating a joint department with Farmingdale, but that hasn’t really been seriously discussed yet,” Rudy said during the meeting. Farmingdale select board member Jim Grant said his town is moving forward with plans to build a new fire station with or without an agreement with Hallowell.

After committee members heard from officials from Hallowell, Augusta and Farmingdale, they spent time deliberating and talking with Rudy about the various scenarios. From that discussion, it would appear as though the option to rebuild the Second Street station doesn’t have legs.

Rudy estimated the cost of reconstructing the Second Street station to be more than $600,000. Rebuilding the current station, which is more than 180 years old and isn’t suited for a modern fire department, would be too costly for the city, especially with the Stevens School redevelopment and the upcoming Water Street reconstruction.

The Augusta City Council Thursday unanimously approved a proposal to seek residents’ permission to issue bonds for up to $6 million for the proposed major renovation and expansion of Hartford Station. The plan will go to residents in a referendum in November.

Based on several meetings and discussions about fire services in Hallowell, it’s unlikely the two cities, which are separated by less than 2 miles, will opt to spend upwards of $7 million for fire station improvements.

Fairly early in the discussion, committee member Sandy Stubbs, who is leading a group to restore the fire tower, made a strong statement about what the committee should decide.

“We owe the citizens of Hallowell a full-time fire department,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any other choice but to go with Augusta.”

Augusta Fire Chief Roger Audette said his department, which currently has 50 full-time firefighters, would hire two new firefighters. There would be 12 firefighters on duty around the clock. Currently, there are 12 on duty during the day and 10 on duty at night.

The personnel would be stationed at the city’s Hartford Station, which is less than 2 miles from the Hallowell city line. There would be no firefighters stationed in Hallowell if the city contracted its services with Augusta.

Grant and several of his firefighters in attendance questioned if that would be the best decision for the people of Hallowell. In July, Grant told the Kennebec Journal that he wouldn’t seek reappointment to the position he’s held for 33 years and believed he was constantly undermined by certain city officials.

‘WHO’S GOING TO COME?’

“What would the two Augusta firefighters be doing while they were waiting for calls from Hallowell?” Grant asked. “Their first responsibility would be to the citizens of Augusta, so if they were out on a call and something happened in Hallowell, who’s going to come?”

Under the current mutual aid agreement between Hallowell and Augusta, the Augusta Fire Department responds to any confirmed structure fire in Hallowell, so in some respects, Hallowell would be paying Augusta for services it currently receives for free.

“We’re not down here fishing for more work,” Audette said. “This isn’t the Augusta Fire Department stomping our way into Hallowell.”

The estimated cost of contracting with Augusta, based on figures provided to the Kennebec Journal by Rudy, would be about $2 million over 10 years. It would add $117.99 in property tax per year based on a $182,000 home value. But Rudy said these numbers are just estimates.

Under the plan with Farmingdale, Hallowell would lease two bays in the Maine Avenue station and would operate autonomously. There was support for and against building a substation at Stevens School to supplement the operations at the Farmingdale station.

PER-DIEM DISCUSSED

Grant said one of the advantages of sharing a station with Farmingdale is the possibility of making joint purchases of equipment, which would save both municipalities money.

Committee member Dan Davis suggested adding the option of per diem firefighters, who would be paid a specific rate per day. It would ensure the city always had a firefighter on duty and able to respond quickly to any call.

“The most important factor is the number of people you can get (to a call) in the quickest amount of time,” Rudy said. An informal poll of the Hallowell firefighters at the meeting by Councilor Diano Circo showed they’d all be willing to work per diem. They are currently paid per call.

Rudy estimated that sharing a station with Farmingdale and having around-the-clock per diem firefighters would cost about $3.7 million over 10 years and would add $222.35 in property tax annually. It’s nearly double the Augusta plan, but it does provide Hallowell with a full-time department.

Building a new facility for public safety at Stevens School with a 24/7 per diem fire department is by far the most expensive of the discussed proposals. It would cost more than $5.5 million over a decade, including $1.6 million for the building itself. That figure would add $284.04 in property tax per year to Hallowell homeowners.

Jason Pafundi can be contacted at 621-5663 or at:

[email protected]