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LETTER: Auburn councilor explains vote on Great Falls Arts Center

To the Editor:

As an Auburn City Councilor, I, as well as Councilor Daniel Herrick, have often borne the brunt of the Sun Journal’s reporting. At first I was bothered, but I actually don’t mind anymore.

I’ve seen the Sun Journal criticize NASA astrophysicists, doctors, surgeons, educators and more. I began to feel that I was not in bad company.

You see, I have no dog in the race, other than being a rational, level headed and compassionate human being. I have learned an unbelievable amount about civic politics, systems and laws. I have had the pleasure of serving two terms with a sensational group of individuals. The City of Auburn has an amazing group of employees.

The council, though not always in agreement, is comprised of people who are well-intentioned and who try their hardest. I ran on a platform of stirring up debate and giving everything in local government a sort of litmus test. I have been instrumental in successfully cutting the tax rate here more than once—and by a hefty margin.

I have engaged in many endeavors that have either saved or made money for my city. I have been beat up, kicked, thanked and cherished. And you know the best part? It was done in partnership with other human beings who are of the same fiber.

I did not, nor do I, act alone. The democratic process is one in which debate is actively engaged with facts, figures and passion. Under former mayor John Jenkins, debate was strong, vibrant, respectful and effective. With our current mayor, this process is discouraged.

Meetings are constantly shanghai’d, and topics are limited to those with prior approval. When the council brings up a topic, it’s not because we are sitting at home looking to meddle. It’s because we were contacted and asked to intervene. When councilors believe action is necessary on an item that is not on the agenda, parliamentary procedure allows them to suspend the council’s rules and discuss the issue.

As recently as three weeks ago, the city manager and the mayor ago asked us to do this very thing. The mayor asked us to suspend the rules not only to discuss, but also to have a first and second reading on his PACE program. Funny this didn’t get included in the Sun Journal’s report.

The city manager regularly asks us to do this when time is not an option on some issues. At the top of the pile is our collective action on the former Great Falls school.

Now used as the Great Falls Performing Arts Center, the old school has been a sleeping dragon. For tens of years, this building has cost taxpayers significant amounts of cash. In the last four years, without adding CIP improvements, we are $250,000 in the hole.

This building is admittedly unsafe. Our own fire department and code-enforcement officials have been thrown out by past management and told that they are not allowed back in or even to discuss this facility.

Remember when the nightclub in Warwick, R.I. burned down, killing almost 100 people who were trapped inside? What if a Warwick-style event takes place at the Great Falls Performing Arts Center? Someone could get seriously hurt or die. The city is on the hook for this facility because we have turned a blind eye to it.

Let’s say we decided to keep the old school building alive. Then what? Well, it needs an elevator. There are multiple levels that need to be accessed. The most convenient spot would be the corridor between the buildings. The problem is that the hallways are not long enough and the pitch for a wheelchair ramp would be way too high.

So the elevator needs to stand alone in its own space. Cost? Probably $100,000 or more because all the levels that need to be addressed with ramping. Next? A heating system that is extremely inefficient. Cost to replace would be $100,000-plus, and I could be way off.

Then what? A sprinkler system. One side of the building is sprinkled, the non-theater side is not. Reasonable estimate? $100,000 plus. This is a code requirement and needs to be done to honestly continue to rent space here.

Next? Parking. Paving of the lot across the street, which was purchased with CDBG money, would cost $30,000 to $80,000 or more. The $110,000 spent to buy the lot should have gone elsewhere.

A rapid-fire list of things that need work, which are also very costly, include: illuminated displays for fire exits; emergency fire pulls; alarm system or update; electrical and transformer conversion; water separation piping; asbestos removal or rewrap; lead paint survey; varmint control; and piping upgrades.

I appreciate all who want to get involved in this issue. But please keep in mind that we are nothing more than human, and we are all in this together. If you feel that you’re not being represented properly, then please show up and speak.

Michael Farrell

Auburn City Councilor

Ward 1

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4 Responses to “LETTER: Auburn councilor explains vote on Great Falls Arts Center”

  • Blum:

    Councilor Farrell makes some very good points but has missed a few. With all due respect, it will take an estimated $300-500,000 to demolish the building depending on the hazardous materials involved and the amount of the building demolished. This was not considered but was committed by the council as soon as they voted to demolish the building. Councilor Farrell rightly identified the issues and, between the three estimates he listed, $280,000 of investment needed. I am sure the additional $20,000-220,000 which would be needed to demolish could be leverage to raise funds to complete the needed upgrades.

  • Andre Demers:

    Trust me, Councilor Farrell, I will show up and speak.

  • Fed Up:

    Mr. Farrell: “This building is admittedly unsafe. Our own fire department and code-enforcement officials have been thrown out by past management and told that they are not allowed back in or even to discuss this facility.”

    Past management? That would be the CITY!

    Maybe the city would not be “$250,000 in the hole.” if they had spent some money before now, to make it a more desirable, safe and useful rental space!

    Let’s see… spend $300,000 to demolish the building OR spend $300,000 to improve it and create a beautiful performing arts space for YOUR community.

  • Fed Up:

    I will be there on Monday too! I would have been at the previous meeting had I known you were going to make just a crazy, drastic decision that night!

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