SKOWHEGAN, Maine — Somerset County officials expressed jubilation Thursday at the news that a $500,000 federal grant will enhance emergency services and give taxpayers a badly needed break.
The money is part of the 2010 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, which has been approved in both bodies of Congress. On Thursday the House passed a conference report on the bill, which is an agreement between the House and Senate about what projects should be funded. The Senate is expected to do the same when it reconvenes next week.
“We’re excited and ecstatic about it; I don’t know how I can say it any stronger,” said Robert Higgins Sr., director of the Somerset County Emergency Management Agency. “It’s going to be a big benefit for the region and Somerset County.”
Higgins said the money would be used to renovate and expand the building at 8 County Drive in Skowhegan that houses the emergency management agency and the county dispatch center.
“There are emergency management people working out of a renovated closet,” he said. In 2003, the Federal Emergency Management Agency inspected the building and flagged several deficiencies, the most serious of which was that the building is too small for what it houses, said Higgins. All of Somerset County and several towns in northern Kennebec County rely on the center for emergency services, including dispatchers for police, fire and rescue agencies.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, was instrumental in securing the funding, said Higgins and County Administrator Robin Weeks. Michaud’s staff collaborated with county officials during the yearlong application process, and the congressman visited the site.
“This funding will enhance public safety throughout the region by helping our first responders better communicate and coordinate,” said Michaud in a press release.
Weeks said the announcement is especially sweet because of contention in the county over taxes since the construction of the new $30 million Somerset County Jail and Sheriff’s Department, which opened a year ago.
“Our taxpayers were hit with an increase in taxes,” said Weeks. “We knew we needed to upgrade the emergency operations center but we didn’t want to go to the [Somerset County] taxpayers to do that. We couldn’t continue the way it was.”
Higgins said the expansion would provide more space for a command center in the event of a widespread emergency and allow for better collaboration with the dispatch center. He said a preliminary design has been completed for the project, but that there’s a lot of work to do before construction begins.
“I have no idea when we’ll break ground,” he said. “It all depends how fast we can get the planning in place.”