Police station will be defining issue in Caribou council election

CARIBOU, Maine — The future of the Caribou police department headquarters has divided the current city council, and is now one of the defining issues of the upcoming Caribou municipal elections.

The seven candidates for the two open city council seats met on Wednesday night to answer questions from Caribou residents on local and national issues from economic development strategies to cancel culture.  

While the field — which includes first-time candidates, former city councilors and incumbents — is closely aligned on many issues, a discussion of how to handle the police station, which is in dire disrepair, revealed philosophical differences between contenders

Not only is the police station a local hot-button issue, but the candidates’ approaches to solving the department’s problems revealed different long-term strategies for municipal spending, attracting new families and businesses and revitalizing the community. 

At the end of the summer, Bangor-based architecture firm Artifex presented the city council with a $9.9 million proposal to build a brand new police station based on specifications laid out in a report the city council commissioned earlier this year. 

Nobody believes that the police station can go much longer without — at the very least — major upgrades. It lacks essential storage space and has glaring safety issues like a shared lobby for visitors and those under arrest. Tucked in the basement of city hall, the station is also too small for the department.  

Candidates Tom Ayer and Hugh Kirkpatrick said that either the century old building could be renovated, or that a new police station should be built in one of Caribou’s other existing buildings. In communities like Caribou, they argued, the focus should be on keeping taxes low and working with the resources at hand. 

“I think spending $10 million, whatever it is, in Caribou, Maine, is pretty reckless,” Ayer said. “Our population doesn’t support that … There’s no doubt in my mind we definitely need to do something about downstairs, because it’s decrepit. But we cannot burden the taxpayers in the town with that cost.”

People opposed to renovation say that old buildings, like the City Hall, often have unforeseen structural flaws or require major upgrades to come up to modern code. 

Paul Watson, who worked at disability advocacy organization Alpha One, said that ADA compliance alone would be a costly barrier to upgrading old buildings. 

“When you start talking about proper doors, widths, hallways, access in, ramps, the whole nine yards — it adds up so quickly,” Watson said. “I’ve watched ADA bathrooms go in with a price tag of $20,000 a pop.”

Candidates in favor of building from scratch see a new station as an investment and potentially an attraction to the community. While $10 million is certainly a high number, and some felt strongly that the city could get a new building for less, especially with grants, having a new police station would be a huge asset for the community for decades to come.

“If you want our protection to be the best, sometimes it costs more,” Merchant said. “We have a very prevalent drug problem in our area and it’s very clear that our current station is not equipped to handle — not only the arrested offenders, but what about the officers working there? Are they equipped properly for what they need?” 

Merchant went on to support building a combined fire and police department, an idea backed by Watson, too. The city considered this option several years ago, though ultimately dropped it in favor of pursuing a standalone police department.

Some candidates, like current Mayor Jody Smith, pointed out that while the city council has spent several weeks embattled by debates over a nonbinding referendum on the new police station, final decisions on the location, cost and design of the new station haven’t been made yet. Those choices will fall to the next council.

John Morrill encouraged residents to read the reports that have already been issued on the police station. Some of the confusion over Tuesday’s referendum and which design proposals have already been vetted by the city and the architecture firm, could be assuaged by reading that report, he said. The language of the referendum has caused more confusion than it’s worth, he said.

“The issue that’s being voted on in November is a survey question. It’s not saying whether in fact we’re going to spend $10 million” he said. “I believe it should have said, ‘Do you believe in building a new police station?’ Then the work that needs to be continued could have been continued.”

Whatever choice the council comes to, Martin — who personally supports a new building — said the group has to come to a decision soon.

“The longer you wait to do this and look and look — four years ago it was $6 million, now it’s $10 million. What’s it going to be three years from now?” he said. 

While the police station was the area of clearest distinction between the candidates, voters who attended the meeting in person had an array of priorities for the future of Caribou including getting rid of blighted buildings and regulating the marijuana industry. Seeing the candidates speak on their vision of the future of Caribou helped ease some of the questions in their minds. 

“I listened to how much they listen to the people and having the people’s views instead of going their own directions,” Eileen Mullins said. “I came as somebody wanting to learn about it.”

For Caribou resident Natalie Kavin, the most important priority she’ll consider in the voting booth is improving the quality of leadership in the city. 

“A lack of honesty, that’s been my big [problem] all along,” Kavin said. “If people would just be honest and truthful it would go a long way for solving some problems.”

The full stream of the city council debate is available on Caribou’s YouTube page. Caribou’s municipal and state election voting site is at the Caribou Wellness Center, where residents will be able to vote from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Nov. 2.

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