2012-05-25 / Community

South Portland mulls public works facility

By Jack Flagler Staff Writer

South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey said he has tried to find a new location for the city’s ailing public works and transportation facility for eight years. So it was surprising that Gailey found news article calling the building on O’Neil Street a “state of the art public works facility.”

The problem, Gailey said, is that the article was published in the 1930s.

“The facility is past its prime, to say the least,” he said.

The South Portland City Council listened to a proposal May 21 from members of Sebago Technics, an engineering firm based in Westbrook, that outlined a plan for a new public works and transportation facility located on city-owned land off Highland Avenue. The firm has worked with architects and city staff on the project. The property is currently a landfill and transfer station.

Gailey called the public works department a “hidden asset.”

“It is our front-line workers, it is our alternative transportation mode here in the city. This facility would handle our city buses, our snowplows, our men and women who make our parks beautiful. The people who put a good face on South Portland will all be operating out of this complex,” he said.

Gailey said the public works officials are not currently given the resources they need.

“They do a wonderful job with what they have,” Gailey said. “But it’s a struggle for them day in and day out.”

Owens McCullough, vice president of engineering and project development at Sebago Technics, echoed Gailey’s thoughts about the need for a new location. He said the current facilities are “way beyond their design life.”

McCullough said if action isn’t taken, Public Works Director Doug Howard “is going to have a really hard time providing the essential services you need in a community.” You’re facing almost a crisis situation, where if you don’t do something, you’re stuck.”

South Portland City Councilors were receptive to the initial plan. Not only would the move make work easier for those city employees affected, but Mayor Patti Smith said the increased acreage would also help extend the life of the equipment used by the public works and transportation departments. Currently, much of that equipment has to be stored outside because of lack of space, which creates rust and wear that shortens the life span of the equipment.

“I see where we are right now as a money pit,” Smith said.

If the proposal goes through, she added, “Every time we appropriate funds for a plow or bus I’m going to feel that they have a home to live in.”

“I’m hoping this moves forward,” said Councilor Maxine Beecher. “I think it’s one of our greatest needs in the city, and I think to be responsible, we need to move forward.”

Smith also noted the development of the O’Neil Street neighborhood would help mitigate the cost of the new facility.

Currently, the facility is “bounded on four sides by single-family residential homes,” said Gailey, adding that it can cause problems when, for example, a snowstorm hits and employees are using the facility throughout all hours of the day and night. He said the noise can upset residents who live close by when the vehicles are moving through the facility early in the morning and residents are “trying to get that last hour of sleep.”

Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis said she, too, approved of the initial plan, but noted ultimately the decision would not be in the city council’s hands.

“You can convince the seven of us, but the seven of us are not going to be the ones making the vote,” De Angelis said. “Thinking beyond this dais of councilors, how do we change the minds of the residents who are going to be the ones who vote on this bond?”

This is not the first time the city of South Portland has tried to move the facility from O’Neil Street. At first, the city looked at whether the O’Neil Street facility could be renovated to accommodate the public works department. When it was decided the location did not provide enough space, the issue went to the voters. In 2005, South Portland citizens decided by a narrow vote to strike down a bond measure to move the facility to the former Durastone cement plant.

The proposed Highland Avenue location would encompass 15 acres of land with room to expand, should the city’s needs change in the future. This would include areas for vehicle storage with radiant-heat floors, an area for vehicle maintenance and an office area for the public works, transportation and parks departments. The area would also include storage for salt and sand, and a designated area to dump snow during storms, both of which would be located as far as possible from residences.

Gailey said the next step before the new facility can go to voters in the fall is to address the questions councilors had in the development plan and come up with a cost estimate for the project. He said he expects to go back in front of the council within the next 30 to 45 days with a cost estimate to move forward in the process.

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