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Councilors discuss informational meetings for new building

CARIBOU, Maine — Caribou City Councilors last week discussed the best way to move forward with plans for building a new public safety building at the former Birds Eye site on Route 1. The facility would house the city’s fire, ambulance, and police departments.

Councilors approved on Jan. 8 spending $25,000 for Portland-based Port City Architects to conduct a study on the feasibility of the project. With the study underway, councilors discussed during a Jan. 29 Council Work Session how to educate the public about the proposal, how to apply for grants, and when to put the issue out to public vote.

Councilor Joan Theriault provided a recap to councilors and attendants, explaining that architects estimate that the facility would cost about $8 million to build, and that the city could receive up to 55 percent of that amount through a USDA Rural Development grant.
Theriault also sits on a building committee for the new facility and told councilors that members of that panel “thought the best way to go would be to apply for the grant, and put it on the ballot hopefully in June.”

To increase the chances of public approval, Theriault said Fire Chief Scott Susi and Police Chief Michael Gahagan have compiled a list of commonly asked questions about the project.

Mayor David Martin asked Theriault about the best way of distributing the question and answer list to the public.

“We’ve discussed putting articles in the newspaper, putting something on TV, having tours through both the fire department and police departments [to show the need for a new facility], and putting information online,” Theriault said.

Martin said he thinks “June is too soon” to put the matter out to public vote.

“We need to back up a step,” the mayor said. “We have a committee, and I think we should expand on that committee for the purpose of asking how many people want to attend, and getting an idea of how many are for or against this project.”

He suggested publicizing building committee meetings so that “anyone who wants to attend can attend,” and possibly holding these meetings at the city’s Wellness and Recreation Center.

By doing this, Martin said more people may be receptive to the project, adding that “we need to educate the public more before we ask them to vote on this.”

Theriault agreed, and said that was also the building committee’s plan.

Chief Gahagan told councilors that one of the concerns with the project is that he and Chief Susi would need the council’s permission in order to apply for the 55 percent matching grant, and even then it would take “six to nine months” before the city would know if it was approved.

The police chief said, if the city waited to hear back about grant approval, it would likely improve their chances of public approval.

“I think if we could show the public that we have 55 percent of the cost already earmarked from the government,” Gahagan said, “it would go a lot better toward public acceptance versus not knowing.”

Martin then asked if it was even realistic to hold the vote in June, and councilor Hugh Kirkpatrick suggested establishing a “critical path” for the project.

“One thing I mentioned in our last meeting that I think would be helpful is a critical path,” Kirkpatrick said. “How do we understand how this will all move forward?”

“If it takes eight or nine months [for grant approval],” Mayor Martin said, “there are a lot of questions that can be answered and a lot of work that can be done. If we get the grant, we’re ready. If we don’t, we move to a plan B. We don’t even have to accept the grant.”

Gahagan suggested holding the vote in November.

“I don’t want to rush the public into anything,” he said. “I want them to know what we’re working with. Really, it’s an education process.”

Since the councilors cannot officially move to vote or approve any issues during workshop meetings, they concluded their discussion by making suggestions for the frequently asked questions list.

City Manager Dennis Marker told councilors and public attendants to direct any questions to the City of Caribou, so they can compile a comprehensive list for the public.

“If you hear any other questions,” Marker said, “let us know and we’ll try to get answers for them.”

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