2018-05-11 / Front Page

Rebuild of fire station preferred

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Given its first serious look Tuesday, May 8 at how best to handle a mold infestation at the Cash Corner Fire Station, the South Portland City Council expressed a clear desire to forego repairs in favor of building an all-new structure.

There’s only one problem with that plan – it’s at least a $3.4 million job and the city doesn’t have that kind of cash on hand. Moreover, it seemed unlikely based on workshop debate that staffers could get project specs ready in time for a public bond vote much before November 2019. That means either move forward with a projected $1.7 million refurbishment of sleeping quarters in the existing station, or else let firefighters stew in spores for another 18 months, minimum.

That it should never have come to this went without saying, but Mayor Linda Cohen said it anyway.

“I am so sorry,” she told a contingent of firefighters on hand for the May 8 meeting.

“I’m looking at you guys sitting there and I’m thinking, ‘What have we done to these people,’” Cohen said. “No employee should be subjected to those kinds of working conditions, and I am so sorry.

“I have a little water problem at my house,” Cohen said. “It goes under a carpet downstairs and I’m worried about mold growing down there, and here you guys are sleeping in it. For how long? I don’t know.”

The mold issue was uncovered more than a year ago when work was undertaken to replace tiles in one of two drop ceilings installed since the station, located at 360 Main St., was built in 1972.

In February 2017, the city hired Environmental Safety & Hygiene Associates of Westbrook to conduct a baseline assessment of the mold. The result was the identification of “extensive mold accumulations” including black mold, “in wall cavities, ceilings, insulation and other surfaces,” City Manager Scott Morelli said. The study also uncovered extensive evidence diesel particulates on many surfaces.

The immediate reaction, at the consultant’s urging, was for firefighters to undertake new methods of cleaning the station, in hopes of preventing surface molds from becoming airborne, while one sleeping area already subject to airborne mold spores, was permanently closed.

Fire Chief James Wilson said no firefighters have reported ill health effects related to the mold issue.

In a December report, the city’s contracted engineering firm, Sebago Technics, determined the mold accumulation was “most likely a function (of) water damage and lack of air circulation including (from) prior modifications to the building.”

“It is apparent the extent of the mold will require a complete demolition and reconstruction of the living quarters,” Morelli said. “(Sebago Technic’s) recommendation is to remove all materials within the living quarters to expose the structure and allow for cleaning, mold remediation and reconstruction of the interior building area. This will require significant demolition work, along with the installation of new partition walls, finishes, fixtures and furnishings. At the same time, new, energy-efficient mechanical, electrical, lighting, controls, ventilation and communication systems should also be installed.”

The price tag calculated by Sebago – $1.7 million.

The city already has most of that on hand. Last year, the city set aside $200,000 from undesignated general fund surplus dollars for the clean up. For the upcoming 2019 fiscal year budget, another $500,000 is being set aside. And, late last year, the city council agreed to enter into a lease/purchase deal for a new Quint fire truck that will replace Engine 5, a 2003 front line pumper and aerial ladder truck, at the Cash Corner station. That allowed the city to divert the $1 million already raised for the truck and reallocated that money toward mold remediation needs.

Owens McCullough, a senior vice president with Sebago Technics, told councilors there are several other issues with the fire station. For one, there is no hood over the kitchen stove, and there is no sprinkler system, meaning the fire department does not actually meet fire codes. The bathrooms are also “antiquated,” he said.

“The interior of the building is facing some significant challenges,” McCullough said. “The structure itself is in decent shape. It’s the interior that’s the problem.”

Still, given the many issues, including a projected need for more space as the west end of the city continues to grow, several fire fighters stumped for a total rebuild.

“To invest $1.7 million in a building that was built in 1972 just to bring it up to 2018 standards, that doesn’t really give you any investment in the future,” said station Capt. Chris Copp. “We’re already starting to run up against the size and function of this building. Even with the changes that are proposed, it’s not really going to service us too far into the future.

“I think with the growth and development we’re seeing in the western part of the city, and the demands in the rise call volume, we’re probably going to outgrow this station within five to seven years,” Copp said.

Meanwhile, changes in demographics over the decades has eaten into the ranks of South Portland’s volunteer firefighters, which have dropped from more than 130 members, to 30, with no real growth in the number of career firefighters and EMTs, Copp said, noting the commensurate need for sleeping quarters as more full-time and per diem crew are hired.

“We’re asking more and more of this station,” 32-year firefighter Bill Collins said. “I hate to spend tax money. I am as cheap as you can get. But I don’t want to spend $1.7 million on a station that in a few years will no longer serve us. Should we spend a little bit more and get a bigger bang for our buck?”

Richie Cotton of Evans Street said he was around when the Cash Corner station was being planned in 1970.

“It should have been bigger, but the council cut it. They went back to far then, and I think it’s time to build new. Completely new,” he said.

All members of the council chimed in their agreement.

“We should have a fire station that meets fire code,” said Councilor Kate Lewis. “And if we could pass a multi-million bond for a new public works facility, then a couple million for the fire department is probably reasonable, because it’s for public safety.”

“I am definitely in favor of a new facility,” said Councilor Adrian Dowling. “The facility was a bit undersized when it was built. That’s the kind of thing you always end up paying for eventually. I wouldn’t want us to double down on that mistake by pouring more money into an already functionally deficient facility for what could be half the down payment on a new one.

“I think the public would look favorably on a bond for a new fire station,” Dowling said. “I think everyone understands its lives at stake.”

“We didn’t pick this timing but I think we need to embrace it,” Councilor Claude Morgan agreed.

But in the end, it was timing that proved to be the real stumbling block.

City Finance Director Greg L’Heureux said, “We may not have sufficient time to pull everything together for the November ballot. It would take at least two months to “do all the proper studies and get all the numbers in place,” he sad.

“I’d prefer to go forward with real numbers on a real design,” McCullough said, suggesting a, “No,” answer.

Morgan likewise deemed it “unreasonable” to expect a November vote, especially with most of those in favor of a new station also saying it should be built on a new location. Site selection will take significant time, he added.

Cohen said missing November 2018 means no vote on a bond until 2019, meaning no new station until late 2020, at best.

Lewis asked why a June 2019 vote was not an option, but Cohen deemed it out of the question, because of the low turnout at the June school budget validation vote in a non-primary year.

“We try to get maximum turnout for big bond questions,” she said. “In June, turnout will be terrible, like 8 percent.”

And even then, there were other questions to consider. For example, the plan had been to stage the Cash Corner crew at the Western Avenue and Central Fire stations during the four months it might take to clean the mold and renovate their firehouse.

“If we go down the road of the new facility, I think you have to plan on two years to be able to occupy that facility,” McCullough said. “If the building mold becomes so bad in that time that you can no longer occupy that building, what is our plan?”

There was no answer and, ultimately, no decisions.

In the end, Cohen said, “We’re not going to get any further this evening. We need staff to start talking about possibilities and then come back to us, even if its in a memo, with an update.”

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