FARMINGTON – Town Manager Richard Davis and Selectman Chair Stephan Bunker updated selectmen on the possibility of a shared county and town public safety facility at the Tuesday night meeting. While noting that any decision would be premature, all of those present agreed that the need for improvement in the police department’s workspace was real and pressing.
The possibility was raised at a meeting of the county’s building committee last week. That committee, which Bunker and Selectman Dennis Pike both serve on, is working with the county commissioners and a firm specializing in architecture to improve the county’s facilities.
The proposal would be to build a new facility on the site of the former town garage. That site, near the intersection of High Street and Farmington Falls Road, would house the Farmington Police Department, in addition to county’s Emergency Management Agency office and Franklin County’s dispatch center.
The idea was suggested by Smith Reuter Lull Architects, a Lewiston-based firm. They have been working with the county government to redesign, and possibly add on to, the Superior Courthouse building and other facilities. The new Farmington Police Station would allow the EMA and county dispatch center to move out of their respective positions, making more room for the other entities that share that space.
“One of the things we put on the table,” Bunker said, “with my approval, were some discussions over how we could achieve some economies of scale with our departments.”
Currently, the police department has only a few hundred square feet of space at the municipal building. Whether to move the department to a new facility has been debated at selectmen meetings, annual town meetings and elsewhere for years. Two studies have been conducted on the question of how much more space the department needs, and they both call for more space. According to Davis, Police Chief Richard Caton believes that the cramped workspace may be partially responsible for some of the department’s turnover rate.
Bunker and Davis noted that nothing had solidified. The county’s direction remains unclear, and obviously the plan could only go forward with the commissioners’ approval of the concept. Many other plans have also been suggested, including a Church Street-adjacent addition to the courthouse, connected by a corridor, which would house some of the court’s functions.
“The town can’t do anything until we know what the county’s doing,” Davis said.
Possible issues include the use of town land for a county facility, which Pike noted was a change from an earlier recommendation of building a new facility near the jail. Davis also said that the compatibility of the involved parties would need to be looked at closely.
A joint facility could potentially save money, but Davis noted that no matter what the county decided, the police department’s space concerns could not be put off forever.
“We have reached a critical point, where we can’t put this off,” Davis said. “We’re going to have to borrow money to fix this eventually.”
The town of Farmington’s “debt ceiling,” or the amount it could borrow, currently stands at $64 million, according to Davis. The actual amount of debt the town has is only $6 million, and $2.3 million of that will be gone within two years. Farmington also enjoys a favorable bond rating, thanks to its good credit history and low amount of debt.
“The problem is still there and it’s not going to go away just because the county goes in a different direction,” Davis said.
“At some point in time,” Bunker stressed, “we’ve got to focus down on what our options are.”