Residents gave town officials approval May 25 to borrow up to $1 million to build a new fire station or improve the existing one, as well as to purchase a rescue truck.

Searsmont Fire Chief James Ames said the existing fire station is at the end of its effective life and detailed some of its more serious deficiencies. One problem the chief cited is every time there’s substantial rainfall, water runs in through the station’s doors and soaks the floor.

While that isn’t a problem during warmer months, in the winter the water freezes and makes it difficult to open the doors and allow trucks to exit. Space is also a problem and firefighters must move the trucks outside to conduct any training inside the building.

As for equipment, the department's current rescue truck is "very old" and some of the newer equipment the department uses needs to be stored on a more modern vehicle, according to Alden Robbins, who also serves in the department. In addition, a new rescue truck will not fit in the existing fire station, he said.

If the town chooses to build a new station, the Robbins family will donate a few acres of land in Come Spring business park — a location Ames said will be safer for emergency vehicles entering and exiting the property.

Selectman Bruce Brierley said initially he opposed borrowing $1 million to build a new fire station; instead, he felt the existing building could be renovated and improved. However, after looking at the space with the town’s code enforcement officer, Brierley learned there are limitations to what can be done on the property, particularly with regard to the septic system.

“I changed my mind and we should probably have a new fire station,” Brierley said.

The prospect of borrowing such a large sum coupled with a new location for the station had some in attendance at the special meeting concerned about how the project will impact residents. One resident said she lives across the road from the site where the new fire station could be constructed. Her concern was that the area would become a thoroughfare for emergency vehicles.

Fire officials, though, painted a different picture, noting the department responds to an average of 100 medical and 100 fire calls a year.

Other concerns related to the impact borrowing money will have on tax bills. Based on figures provided by the town, if Searsmont borrows the full $1 million, it will pay it back over a 15-year period at an interest rate of about 2.5 percent.

That means the town will have to pay back a total of $1,200,250, with an estimated yearly payment of $80,000, according to documentation provided by the town. To cover those costs, the town will tap revenues it receives from a tax increment financing district established for Georges River Energy, a biomass project launched by the Robbinses.

The TIF district exists to shelter from the state’s funding formula new value generated by buildings, additions, renovations or any other changes that increase a property's value. Local assessments are a major component in the state's school funding formula — the smaller a city or town's total assessment, the more education aid it is likely to get, according to previously published reports.

Revenues from the TIF would not cover the full bond payment in the first five years, town representatives said, but would more than cover the yearly payment in subsequent years. As a result, for the first five years, officials said the town would need to contribute about $25,000 to cover the bond payment, which would add between $15 and $19 to the tax bill for a resident with a home assessed at $100,000, Jim Murphy, the town’s assessor, estimated.

All of these figures assume the town borrows the full $1 million amount. However, town officials are exploring grant options to reduce the overall cost of the project. One grant opportunity is through the Northern Border Regional Commission and that application is due June 2.

Residents approved four articles related to borrowing money for the fire station project and rescue truck, and to allow the town to tap revenues from the Georges River Energy TIF to pay for the project.

Town officials said the next steps will be to submit a grant application to Northern Border Regional Commission and to continue looking at designs and locations for a new fire station. They stressed that a final decision about where to build a new station — or even if they will build a new one — has not yet been made.