FARMINGTON — A preliminary plan to move all county departments to a new building in Fairbanks has raised concerns for the Farmington Downtown Association.

Following receipt of a letter from association President Michael Mansir to the Board of Selectmen encouraging them to “support retaining downtown Farmington as the county seat,” the board participated in a discussion with representatives from both the county and downtown group Tuesday.

The project began in 2008 as a building to house the Sheriff’s Department and dispatch center, said County Commissioner Fred Hardy. The plan grew to include the Emergency Management Agency, County Commission and administrative offices.

The public safety building was to be a one-story, rectangular building that would be energy-efficient. Built on county property where the Sheriff’s Department and jail are located, the cost was estimated at about $3 million.

Since then, ideas evolved to have the Franklin County Courthouse taken over by the state, combining district and superior court functions and to move the remainder of the county departments —  including the deeds and probate offices at an increased estimated cost of $5.5 million — to the new building, Hardy said.

The newest proposal “in effect relocates the county seat from downtown Farmington to the Fairbanks area,” Mansir wrote.
Local lawyer Paul Mills, representing the downtown group, said the move to county property would affect the town’s tax base.

He said there is 7,000 square feet of newly renovated, vacant office space in the downtown that could serve as county offices, providing services closer to the court system while filling tax-paying properties.

Mills went on to name spaces next to Kyes Insurance, two offices now available next to Dunkin’ Donuts, the old Masonic block and the former Knowlton McCleery building.

Moving all of the county staff to the new building would make it easier for the state to renovate the courthouse and consolidate court services, Noel Smith of Smith Reuter and Lull Architects said previously. He also said the move would relieve county taxpayers of being liable for more than $1 million in renovations at the courthouse.

Smith and John Cleveland, a consultant who has been looking at financing for the project, attended the board meeting.
Cleveland said the state court system has listed the Franklin County Superior Court as its fourth priority with the goal of consolidating the district and superior courts under one roof.

Mills felt it was unrealistic to expect the state to take over the courthouse. The District Court building lease has 13 years left on it and provides numerous parking spaces, he said.

The project is still in a conceptual stage and involves a lot of aspects, said Board of Selectmen Chairman Stephan Bunker. He  promised to keep informed on its progress.

Commissioner Hardy, who represents Farmington, Chesterville and New Sharon, reminded the board that there are 27 other towns that have an interest in the county finding the best, most economical solution.

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