Councilors seeking additional options for future police and fire station

4 years ago

CARIBOU, Maine — Caribou City Councilors and officials are continuing to investigate a cost-effective method of creating a new police station after a citizens advisory committee narrowly voted in late August to no longer build a combined police and fire station facility.

Officials projected that grant funding could cover half of the estimated $10 million costs if the facility included a fire department. It was later determined that the city would only be eligible for $50,000 in grant funding. 

The committee has discussed methods of establishing a new police and fire station for more than a year, with most members agreeing that a combined facility could be built on the former Birdseye property at the corner of Route 1 and Fort Street. 

While the fire and police stations are in need of significant renovation, the police station in particular is becoming too small to accommodate the officers’ needs.

Caribou Police Chief Michael Gahagan said during a January 2018 council meeting that the station, which is located on the first floor of the Caribou Municipal Building, is “the only facility north of Houlton equipped to handle prisoners.” However, because police need to hold on to evidence, computers and other equipment, the station has become “too small” to contain jail cells in addition to these materials.

The requirement for computers at the station, for example, has forced the department to fill its kitchen with them. The lack of space has forced police to store their evidence at another location, and Gahagan said officers need to keep their public bathroom doors open during the winter so the pipes don’t freeze.

He concluded that what the police have is “not good enough for the city of Caribou and it’s not good enough for our citizens.”

Likewise, the Caribou Fire and Ambulance Department is becoming cramped, with floors buckling beneath crowded emergency vehicles and the department’s average 7.8 calls per day causing the garage doors to constantly open and close, resulting in a significant loss of heat during Aroostook County’s frigid winter months.

The department has a single, private, men’s only bathroom, which Caribou Fire and Ambulance Chief Scott Susi said is preventing the department from hiring women.

Susi, during the same January 2018 meeting, said he has to purchase equipment that fits the building instead of equipment that fits the department’s actual needs.

A lack of grant funding motivated the committee to vote against the combined facility and instead to recommend a new police station in the same location, built with the capability of later expanding to fit the fire department if needed.

Others in the advisory committee said the city should consider renovating an existing building, which could significantly lower project costs, as the standalone police station at the Birdseye site is estimated to cost $5 million. Some considerations are the former VMS building as well as the soon-to-be-closed Sitel building, both on Sweden Street.

Several members of the committee who supported this course of action attended a Sept. 9 council meeting, and further elaborated their position.

Bruce Hagelstein, a Caribou resident who sat on the advisory committee, told the council that while the police are undoubtedly in need of a new facility, the $5 million price is too steep, considering that Caribou and Stockholm are already responsible for paying an additional $2 million in locally funded additions to the Caribou Community School project.

“Everybody likes the smell of a new car,” he said, “but sometimes we gotta go with a used one for efficiency.”

He suggested holding off on pursuing the brand new facility and instead making an effort to thoroughly explore currently vacant buildings in the city.

Committee member Milo Haney agreed, and suggested the VMS building or possibly the former Mecon building on Access Highway should be considered. Haney added that many residents are already struggling with high taxes, and that an additional $5 million along with costs for cleaning up the former Birdseye site and the $2 million of additional funding for the new school may be asking too much of taxpayers.

Wilfred Martin, a Caribou resident who also sat on the committee, emphasized that the decision to utilize existing space would not only save the city money but also could improve the city by reducing the number of vacant buildings.

“If we build a new facility,” Martin said, “it’s going to create more holes in the community. We can’t fill the empty spaces we have right now. If you want to know what Caribou is going to look like in the future then just take a ride up through Van Buren and even Madawaska. That’s what Caribou is going to end up like if they keep building new buildings while leaving the empty spaces empty.”

Councilor Nicole Cote added that while she was not part of the committee, she completely supported the combined public safety building concept when officials believed that half of the project could be funded with USDA grant money.

“When I had that stance,” she said, “it was because I was under the impression that we were going to get significant grant money.”

Cote suggested finding an existing building to house the police department in the meantime so those employees can work in better conditions, and then working toward a new public safety building “when we have the ability to do that as a city without any unknowns.”

Councilor Joan Theriault said she was against postponing this much longer, adding that she was not opposed to finding a suitable building in town as opposed to authorizing the construction of a brand new facility.

“I think the original thought was perhaps to put this on the referendum for next June,” she said, “and I think we should still work toward that goal.” She added that a new police station on the former Birdseye site is “the best way to go.”

“Ultimately,” Theriault continued, “it’s going to be up to the voters. Just like the school was. It’s up to the voters. The taxpayers will decide.”

The public advisory committee will no longer meet, however city officials and councilors will consider its position on the matter moving forward. City Manager Dennis Marker read a letter of appreciation to the committee on behalf of the council, which members unanimously approved during the meeting.

“We recognize that you were asked to study many issues and options, listen to diverse opinions, and weigh the benefits of public safety facilities against the financial constraints of our citizenry,” Marker said, reading from the letter. “You took time away from your family and personal affairs to be associated with an issue that will affect the entire community for many years to come. As time passes, conditions change, which necessitates that we keep an open mind to any possibilities and be diligent in our efforts to provide sustainable public services for Caribou residents. We hope you will continue to share insights and bring possible options to us.”

The council took no formal action during the meeting, but Mayor Mark Goughan suggested the council accept the committee’s final recommendation during the next council meeting. He also  said the council should look into “what it would take for an architectural person to review existing assets in the community” as a potential location for the facility.