Caribou councilors dissolve police station committee

3 weeks ago

CARIBOU, Maine – After an often tense discussion Monday, Caribou city councilors voted to dissolve a council subcommittee that oversaw efforts to design a new city police station.

The committee included City Mayor Courtney Boma, who served as chairperson, councilors Joan Theriault and John Morrill, Police Chief Michael Gahagan and City Manager Penny Thompson. 

According to the city council’s 2024 committee list, the Public Safety Committee was to “work to facilitate the construction of the police station,” for which voters approved spending no more than $10 million in 2022. The committee also worked with the Caribou Organization Promoting Public Safety, a nonprofit that the city set up to acquire potential grants and donations for the project.

On Monday, councilors were discussing the latest proposed design for the new police station when Morrill suggested that his colleagues send their remaining questions to Thompson to pass along to Bangor-based firm Artifex, whom the city hired to design the station.

Councilor Dan Bagley questioned the Public Safety Committee’s purpose, since the council first created it in 2021 to create an informal survey to gauge residents’ support for the police station in the November election that year.

In 2022, the council reinstated the committee to “evaluate [the] police station and create a ballot measure [for the Nov. 2022 election],” according to minutes from the Jan. 10, 2022 city council meeting. Voters approved the city spending no more than $10 million on the police station in Nov. 2022.

Bagley said he did not understand why the committee still needs to exist.

“I don’t think we need a gateway between the city manager and council,” Bagley said.

Councilor Jennifer Kelley agreed. She asked why councilors could not discuss questions or concerns about the police station’s design at Monday’s meeting or ask Thompson to bring questions to architects at Artifex.

“We meet with Artifex and ensure that there is a line of communication between them and the city,” Morrill said, about the committee’s purpose. “If you have questions, we can bring them up with Artifex.”

The committee has never voted on police station-related decisions and always took what they discussed back to the city council, Morrill stated.

But many councilors remained skeptical. Bagley motioned to dissolve the committee, with Kelley seconding the motion, which passed with a 4-to-3 vote. Committee members Boma, Theriault and Morrill voted against the motion.

The council establishes its subcommittees every year but there are no rules in the city’s charter dictating whether councilors can dissolve a committee before the year’s end. Boma requested that Thompson look into that matter.

Prior to that vote, the council had a brief discussion concerning Artifex’s new police station design.

Artifex initially proposed a two-story design, which councilors approved in February. The design included a basement with a secure entryway for officers, a wash bay, mechanical repair space, fitness room, laundry facilities and more evidence storage. Under that design, the entire station would have been 11,897 square feet.

To keep the project below $10 million, Artifex has eliminated the basement. The new design places a smaller mechanical repair area and laundry facility and keeps the fitness room, along with other essentials like larger holding cells, evidence processing and storage, interview and hearing rooms, offices and a “sallyport” garage for police vehicles.

The total estimated price is now $9.5 million, including $7.9 million for construction, $689,400 for land surveying, geotechnical reviews and other environmental tests and $72,500 for interior furnishings, light fixtures, equipment installation and insurance.

Caribou received $2.5 million in congressional funds to partially fund the total police station price tag.

Bagley questioned why certain features, like a private bathroom for the police chief, a social worker’s office and larger interview room, would be necessary. 

“I think we’ll need to think about what we really need versus what would just be nice to have,” Bagley said.

Morrill noted that the design isn’t final and that the project’s price isn’t as certain until the city goes out to bid. The goal is to keep the total price below $10 million, he said.

Councilors voted unanimously to table discussion of the police station.

In other business, councilors heard concerns from resident Bruce Hagelstein about several blighted properties that city officials had said they would be more aggressive on during last month’s meeting.

Hagelstein suggested that blighted properties become a standing agenda item and that the city send copies of the city’s property ordinances with every tax bill this year.

Thompson said that the city has sent notices of violation to property owners, who have until Friday, June 28 to respond. She has advised the new code enforcement officer, John Gibson, to obtain quotes from contractors who can haul away rubbish if the owners do not respond.

Thompson said the city would consider putting with the tax bills an insert explaining the city’s policies on blighted properties.

Councilors also tabled a vote on the city’s mill rate until their regular July meeting.

With a higher school district budget and increased county tax bills, Caribou was anticipating a total rate of 22.3 mills this year, compared with 19.5 mills in 2023.

Thompson proposed that councilors consider transferring $194,790 from the city’s tax relief fund, $100,000 from fire and ambulance capital expenses, $40,000 in unused salary expenses from general government and $30,000 in unused tax assessment and code enforcement salaries to reduce the mill rate from 22.3 to 21.5 mills.

Bagley suggested that Thompson calculate the potential mill rate reduction that would result from transferring unused salaries from all departments.

The next regular city council meeting will be held Monday, July 22 at 6 p.m. at Caribou Municipal Building, 25 High St.