The 1857 Androscoggin County Courthouse complex at Court and Turner streets in Auburn includes the main entrance to the courthouse, far left, the entrance to the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Office, left, and the more recent, multistory jail addition, far right. Russ Dillingham/February 2021 Sun Journal file photo

AUBURN — The Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Office is considering moving from its longtime home at the courthouse at 2 Turner St.

Sheriff Eric Samson revealed at Wednesday’s county commission meeting that he has been talking to a real estate agent about moving his department to another location, which he did not identify, that would better meet its space needs.

A feasibility and a space study conducted earlier this year by the Auburn architectural firm Harriman concluded that the courthouse lacked the room for a safe and professional operation.

“I think we’ve proved this place isn’t suitable,” Samson said. “There’s not enough space. The basement isn’t an appropriate space to have offices, even if there was enough space. It’s time for us to locate to a permanent home that meets the needs of the agency and the public we serve.”

Will Getchell, who conducted the study for Harriman and reported his findings to commissioners in August, concluded that the Sheriff’s Office requires 20,732 square feet to meet its present needs. The department’s space in the courthouse is less than 9,000 square feet.

Harriman’s conclusion was that the department should be “relocated to a new facility on a different site.”

“This has probably been kicked down the road since the 1990s when the new jail was built,” Samson said. “The old jail was supposed to be remodeled for the Sheriff’s Office and it never was and they were all put in the basement. They kept putting up walls and doors and renovating different areas to be what we have now.”

Samson said he has talked to a real estate agent and has identified a building that could meet most of its needs. The facility would still require renovations and an addition would need to be built. He added that the agent would be willing to meet with the commissioners in executive session at its next meeting Dec. 15 to discuss that specific property and other potential locations. Any decision by commissioners to move forward would have to happen in open session.

The main question for commissioners would be how to pay for a new facility and how to fund the renovations.

Samson urged commissioners to use the American Rescue Plan Act funds from the federal government for pandemic relief, which he thinks would qualify due to spacing issues. Bonding, a lease-purchase option or a developer financing the project could be other options, he said.

“I brought you a problem and am looking for a solution. The funding mechanism, that’s totally up to you,” Samson said.

The discussion about a potential move came up while commissioners were reconsidering its unanimous vote to spend $6 million from American Rescue Plan Act to replace the heating/ventilation/air conditioning systems in the courthouse and the jail.

Chairwoman Sally Christner of Turner said friends of hers in the HVAC field thought that price was far too high.

Christner discovered that the $6 million-plus price also included renovations of the dingy basement area in the courthouse, which is plagued by mold. Commissioners Brian Ames and Roland Poirier, both of Lewiston, also said they were not aware the basement renovations were included in the HVAC project.

“I’m not onboard with the full basement remodel,” Ames said. “I think we need to look into that a lot more.”

Commissioners had balked at the high price when it was first introduced in August, but eventually agreed to fund the project.

Facilities Director David Cote said renovation of the basement would provide more office space, improve storage facilities and help with ventilation. The space, however, lacks windows and fresh air, Commissioner Terri Kelly of Mechanic Falls said.

“I don’t think the basement is a suitable work area for people,” Christner said.

Commissioner John Michael of Auburn asked if the space could be utilized by the Emergency Management Agency, a county entity based in Lewiston.

The panel agreed with Commissioner Edouard Plourde of Lewiston when he asked for the HVAC cost to be separated from the basement project.

“We need to slow down and get all the facts together,” Christner said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we need to get it right.”

Commissioner Isaiah Lary of Wales did not attend the meeting. He has missed two of the last three meetings.

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