May 20, 2018
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Why size matters in public works, and South Portland wants $20 million for a new facility

By David Harry, The Forecaster

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Public tours, a Facebook page and design drawings posted throughout the city mean the push is on to convince residents to authorize borrowing $14 million to build a new Public Works Department.

With a referendum on the bond about four months away, city Public Works Director Doug Howard said visibility will be the key to making the case for the expense.

“This is not a glamorous project,” Howard said recently. “We kind of work behind the scenes.”

The work by city Public Works, Transportation and Parks and Recreation departments now begin on a six-acre parcel at 42 O’Neil St., off Cottage Road, in the midst of the Meetinghouse Hill neighborhood. Howard oversees a staff of 21 full-time employees, with four seasonal summer workers and six in the winter.

Plow trucks, school buses, transit buses and heavy equipment warm up, fuel up and are maintained and stored at the site. The shrill whistle of vehicle backup alarms punctures the neighborhood; vehicles lining up for fuel can cause roadblocks for facility visitors and staff.

“I do get complaints about the backup beepers,” Howard said.

The Public Works Department came to the neighborhood about 80 years ago, when the area was less populated. Tax records for Hillside Avenue and O’Neil, Pitt and Walnut streets show substantial residential growth in the 15-20 years after World War II ended. Howard said the needs of the Public Works, Parks and Recreation and Transportation departments are not compatible with the modern, residential surroundings.

If voters approve the bond to fund most of the $15.7 million estimated construction cost, the O’Neil Street operations would shift to city-owned land off Highland Avenue, where the transfer station operates. Principal and interest on a 20-year bond at an estimated 4 percent would total $20 million, according to city Finance Director Greg L’Heureux.

The three departments would be housed in about 10,000 square feet of administrative space, including rest areas for crews working long hours during winter storms.

Plans include almost 24,000 square feet of maintenance space for municipal equipment and vehicles, and 23,500 square feet of covered storage space for larger vehicles.

Howard said building a similar facility on O’Neil Street is not an option.

“I don’t think so,” he said, “because of it being in a dense, residential neighborhood.”

Cape, Scarborough set the bar

Bob Malley and Mike Shaw, Howard’s colleagues in Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough, respectfully, agreed elbow room is critical for the work that too often goes unnoticed until a street is not plowed or a pot hole deepens.

“It is important we are in a place where we can work 24 hours a day,” Shaw said.

The Scarborough Public Works Department sits on 11 acres on Washington Avenue, a street that loops through an industrial park above the Scarborough Marsh. Offices and maintenance areas are in what had been a warehouse.

The 1996 move to the facility came of necessity, Shaw recalled, because a Maine Department of Transportation reconstruction project on Black Point Road went right through the old facility.

Shaw has a staff of 30 working in 48,000 square feet of space. They maintain 167 miles of roads, two beaches, and two cemeteries.

In Cape Elizabeth, Malley and his staff work at a 20-acre complex, which includes recreation areas, on Cooper Drive. The facility opened in December 1999, and replaced what is now the town’s central fire station.

“We were really boxed in,” he said. “There was lots of school traffic, too.”

Malley was director when the $3.6 million project [about $1.6 million spent on the Public Works portion] was approved by Cape Elizabeth voters. He said acceptance of the need for a new facility came because of a communitywide effort through the planning stages.

“Having a committee meant there was a community buy-in,” Malley said.

A staff of 16 full-time Cape Elizabeth employees work in almost 20,000 square feet, where there is also a community meeting room, Malley said.

In South Portland, where Howard began his public works career 30 years ago, riding on the back of a garbage truck, upgrades are as important as a new location.

A four-bay maintenance garage was “touted as state-of-the-art in the 1930s,” he said, and an addition 30 years ago expanded the work space. But some of the most necessary expansion goes up, not out: the city needs heavier lifts and higher ceilings to effectively maintain anything larger than a 2-ton pickup truck.

The maintenance areas in Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth are safer, and in the end, more economical, too, Shaw and Malley said. Multipurpose lifts eliminate the need to haul and install heavy parts at awkward angles.

The Cape Elizabeth facility has covered vehicle storage, which Malley said saves time and fuel when preparing for winter storms. The interior is heated, which eliminates the need to warm up plow trucks, scrape away ice and snow, and can save 30 minutes in deployment time, he said.

Shaw said his department does not opt for indoor storage before storms, but Howard is counting on it in South Portland. He expects to save fuel and time while getting plow trucks out into storms earlier.

The cluster of buildings on O’Neil Street includes one that has been condemned by the state, offices for the Parks and Recreation and Transportation departments, and a building nicknamed “The Bunker,” where male employees can rest during storm cleanups.

Women employees working during storms can choose the upper or lower bunk in a bedroom in the main offices for Public Works.

Howard expects operating savings to be found in heating and cooling one space, instead of multiple buildings of varied ages.

City Manager Jim Gailey set a “placeholder” bond estimate of $10 million last year, and plans discussed through the fall pegged the cost at $17 million. Reducing the covered storage space and allocating city surplus funds and grants to pay $1.7 million for construction allowed the bond to be reduced to $14 million.

The November bond question is not the first attempt to find a new home for the Public Works Department: In 2005, voters rejected a $4.8 million bond to buy the old Durastone concrete fabrication facility off Wallace Avenue.

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