Franklin Countys First News

County making case for Church Street Commons project

JAY - The first of a series of public hearings, pertaining to the future of administration facilities in Franklin County, was held Monday evening at Jay Middle School.

A handful of people attended the hearing, which will be followed by meetings at the Rangeley Lakes Regional High School on Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. and the Franklin County Courthouse on Oct. 13, at 7 p.m. The meetings, a required step in the bond process, are designed to inform the public and solicit opinions regarding a $4.46 million plan to reorganize county facilities.

The planning process began two years ago, after commissioners ordered a building study conducted in the face of rising maintenance and upkeep costs associated with the primary county government building, the Franklin County Courthouse in downtown Farmington, as well as quality of life, overcrowding and safety issues in various county departments. Smith Reuter Lull Architects investigated the issue, pointing to a number of problems with the aging courthouse building and a general lack of space.

"We found all of the departments were grossly lacking on space," John Cleveland, who has been working with the architects, said.

According to the findings of the study, the Registry of Deeds and the Probate Court facilities are out of space for growing collections of files. The District Attorney's Office and local Emergency Management Agency personnel are located in the basement of the courthouse, a floor that has caused a steady stream of moisture-related challenges for maintenance staff and county budgets for years. The dispatch office, housed in the Franklin County Sheriff's Department office near the jail, does not have adequate space or secure facilities, and the sheriff's department itself is storing evidence in offices. The entire county courthouse building was found by the state's Fire Marshal's Office to be in violation of code is several instances, and the county implemented a series of both permanent and temporary remedies to address that issue.

Initially, architects looked at the development of a single facility at the jail site, which would house practically all county functions. However this plan was rejected due to the cost as well as the objections of the Downtown Business Association, who were concerned at the removal of deeds and probate, two of the most often-accessed county functions by the public, from the downtown area.

The building committee was alerted to the potential of leasing or purchasing space in the nearby Church Street Commons. A 10,000 square foot, three-floor complex located across Church Street from the courthouse, the commons was the former Knowlton & McLeary print shop that has since housed several businesses and organizations over the past few years.

Moving probate court and deeds across the street made sense, according to the architects and building committee. The Commons building has reinforced floors, which was designed to hold up heavy printing equipment, and before that an automobile showroom, and could bear the weight of the registry of deeds' records. It also keeps those two departments in downtown Farmington.

The plan calls for an addition near the end of the Commons toward Main Street. That addition, which would replace a single-floor annex with two floors, would make the entire building handicap accessible and serve as a home for county administration and FCEMA offices. The basement would contain a meeting room, space for communications equipment in the case of an emergency, and support systems.

With probate and deeds gone, more room would be available for other county functions in the courthouse. Smith Reuter Lull has suggested moving the District Attorney's Office, located in the basement, to the first floor.

The new plan also calls for an expansion of the Franklin County Sheriff's Department's office building near the jail. That 2,000 square foot building would be expanded by roughly 1,800 square feet, creating a secure space for the dispatch offices at the new rear of the building. Sheriff's department functions could then slide into the space vacated by dispatch, roughly 40 percent of the existing building's space, giving them a temporary solution to the space shortage.

The county has lined up an energy efficiency firm, Fore Solutions of Portland, to help make the new facilities run as cheaply as possible. A purchase and sale agreement has been drafted by the county's attorney, contingent on approval by voters, for the Commons. The agreement would purchase the Commons for $795,300. Interestingly, the owners of the Commons, Steve Braconi and Joseph Carlson, expressed an interest in investing the proceeds of the sale back into Franklin County, and have made that promise in writing.

The question which will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot will ask voters to approve the bonding of the $4,465,000 project at a rate of 2.8 percent. Paying an average of $294,000 annually for 20 years, the building committee has estimated that a Franklin County taxpayer would see an annual increase of $6.60 per $100,000 of property value, if the project is approved. The committee is hoping to move ahead quickly, as the 2.8 percent interest rate is contingent on federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding that will likely not be available next year.

The county hopes the improvements will yield movement at the state level on two significant fronts; PSAP placement and courthouse renovations. Improvements to the dispatch offices, county officials feel, may help the county make a case for keeping its Public Safety Answering Point [see this Daily Bulldog story on the PSAP issue]. Meanwhile, the county would prefer that the county courthouse building, which is slated for renovation in the next few years, be maintained by the state court system.

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6 Responses »

  1. What a perfect time to spend magic money we don't have. Obama will be proud! Taxpayers will really benefit from this one. For just a few million more maybe we could have a grand entrance, kinda like the hospital. If such a thing makes health care that much better then certainly it could somehow repair our roads.

  2. Has anyone asked why we are paying such a premium for the Church street building ($800,000).
    This structure was sold about 6 years ago for approx. $170,000 and I'll bet it's assessed for less than $300,000. That's one heck of a return on a piece of real estate in these hard times.

  3. If the taxpayers let the DAs out of the basement do you suppose they will plea bargain and knock it off with favoritism, brownie points and make a real effort to play by the rules. You know, like treating every citizen with the respect they deserve, look people in the eyes, read the Constitution adhere to it and conduct research as to what the real (rules of law) are. The judicial system is serious business, and when you don't play by the rules, it hurts honest people who are seeking justice. Some improvements with ethical standards and finding a new county attorney would break the ice. The status quo stinks.

  4. Since the year 2000, Farmington's property tax has increased 42%!!! Where does it end? $4 million for a new police station? Borrowing money we don't have....or wait, we'll just add to it to property tax owners and have them pay for it, WITH INTEREST.

    This is a joke. We're in a recession...Maine is a $1billion dollars in the whole and we're looking for new projects to spend money on?

  5. Why would or should the taxpayer purchase an old building (that has a cost that is inflated) while the county owns fifteen (15) acres of prime land in Fairbanks with free parkinng? This makes no sense and I will not be voting for this foolishness..

  6. Hey Ray, it makes perfect sense for the previous owners (their families, their families friends, their families friends contractor, their families friends contractor's dog, and whoever is benefiting from this shenanigan) who are making a healthy profit at the expense of property tax owners.

    What a joke! This town seems to spend tax payers money like it's an Company American Express; no limit and someone else has to foot the bill!!!