Thorndike should have a new town office by early January, and along with some major safety and health improvements over the current offices, residents will finally have a large municipal meeting space. Selectmen will no longer share an office with the town clerk, records will be safe in a new cinder block vault, and heating bills should drop thanks to a new wood pellet furnace.

At 4,800 square feet, the new building is about twice the size of the old town office. The two buildings sit next to one another near the center of town and the difference is noticeable enough that at least one detractor has taken to calling the new building the “Taj Mahal.” It’s hyperbole of course, but also telling of what constitutes an extravagance in Thorndike.

“It’s no bigger than what the town voted for,” said Selectman James Bennett on Dec. 20.

Roughly a third of the new building has been set aside as a single room to be used for large gatherings, including the town’s annual meeting. In past years, town meetings were held at the nearby Central Maine Auction Hall. Last spring, residents met at the Mount View School, and while many Waldo County towns hold their annual meetings at schools, Bennett expects the new meeting room will be put to use more than once a year.

Whether the town needed a big meeting space was contested at last spring’s town meeting, but Bennett said he has already received a dozen calls about using the space for other functions.

An architect’s drawing shows seating for 114 in the large room, located at the north end of the building. Smaller meeting rooms, a pair of bathrooms, and another new feature — a kitchen — line a central corridor. At the south end of the building is the town clerk’s office and reception area. Selectmen will also have a shared office there.

The new building is fully handicap-accessible, as compared with the old office where Bennett said even the front doorknob to the building wasn’t compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act until recently, when it was changed.

Probably the most dramatic improvement over the old building is a large, walk-in cinder block vault constructed to store town records. The records room in the old office was not much more than a closet in which the floor has since caved in, slouching six-to-eight inches in the center of the small room.

In a tour of the old office, Bennett shows it off as a kind of punch line at the end of a long list of problems that prompted calls for the new building.

The office has a documented mold problem and several walls have buckled under their own weight. Doorways have shifted to a degree that goes beyond the typical settling common in New England homes.

Bennett said his first thought was to try to fix it. But after consulting with an engineer, it became clear that it would likely cost more to repair the old office than it would to start from scratch.

Last spring, residents voted to borrow $200,000 for the new building and take $50,000 from surplus. Additionally, the town got a $36,000 grant from Efficiency Maine and a $25,000 Maine Forest Service grant, which paid for the wood pellet furnace. The old office was heated by oil, and was drafty enough that Bennett said the thermostat had to be turned all the way up through much of the winter.

Citing the advice of the town’s attorney, Bennett declined to give the total cost of the building until it is finished, but several times said, “There will be money left over.”

Some of this can be credited to residents who have volunteered their labor, and the town has received a handful of in-kind donations, including a set of oak cabinets for the kitchen.

Bennett said he believes that most residents are happy about the new building, and that those who oppose it amount to a loud minority.

Having recently been on the other side of a similar argument, he also thinks they’re wrong.

Earlier this year, Bennett — a longtime member of the Waldo County budget committee — criticized the county commissioner’s decision to spend more than $1 million outside of the normal budget to construct a new Sheriff’s Office and Emergency Management Agency building.

The plan bore many similarities to the one in Thorndike.

Tthe Sheriff’s and County EMA offices each suffered from a long list of problems ranging from a lack of space and handicap accessibility to sloping floors, flooding and fire hazards.

But Bennett said there are two major differences between the new Thorndike office and the county building.

At around a sixth of the cost, Thorndike’s building is much cheaper, Bennett said, though it is also smaller and houses the offices of one municipality rather than two county agencies.

Bennett also pointed to the fact that the Thorndike office was approved directly by voters, where the county building was paid for out of reserve accounts, meaning the money was spent without a specific authorization from voters.

“My thing is when you spend a million dollars of taxpayer money, taxpayers should have some say,” he said.

In Thorndike, the taxpayers have had their say and Bennett expects the new town office will be open for business around Jan. 7.

As of Dec. 20, a number of details were yet to be resolved, including some of the flourishes that will become as much associated with the town building as the peeling green rectangular sign on the old town office marking Thorndike’s year of incorporation.

A pair of large stones — one glacial erratic, referred to by Bennett at the town meeting as “the big rock,” and another that was removed during the excavation of the foundation — sat outside the entrance to the new building, and Bennett suggested that one could be carved with the town name. A plaque outside will list the residents and businesses who volunteered their time and donated to the project.

A sign above the front door would also need to be ordered. Maybe this time it would be an oval, Bennett said.