Staff, Council Differ On New Police Station Plans
The current West University Place Police Station has a laundry list of problems like a leaky roof, foundation issues, damage from past floods, and 911 equipment and other high-tech gear crammed in almost every closet. City staff has a clear message: Enough is enough.
The council met on Monday to gather information in preparation for a vote next week about options to deal with the long-standing issues at the police station, which past councils have repeatedly put on the back burner.
“To not remedy the problems we’ve had with this building could really negatively affect us in the future,” said West U. Police Chief Ken Walker. During Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, water flooded the building and dispatchers operated electrical equipment with their feet submerged in water. If another storm flooded the station, Walker said he would shut it down, along with the city’s 911 equipment.
“That’s insane, we can’t let that happen,” Walker said. “We can’t expect our employees to be in there in those circumstance.”
There are enough supporting members on the current council to get something done, and now the question is: What? Staff have recommended one option, but the council is leaning towards another option to save the demolition of a city building that still “has life in it,” said Councilman Chuck Guffey.
The two options still being considered are referred to as Option 6 and Option 9. Other options in the series were thrown out by past councils. The remaining options include:
In this $6.5 million plan, the city would build a new two-story police station on a parking lot near city hall, very close to the current station. Public works would remain in its current location. The fire department would get renovations to enlarge a garage bay that is too small for a fire truck, create a new office, install separate male-female restrooms and showers, and make dorm areas more private.
This nearly $7 million plan calls for demolishing the Public Works Building on Amherst Street to make room for a new two-story police station and more parking. The current police station would undergo renovations, and become the new office for public works employees. The fire station renovations would remain the same.
Walker said both options will give the department what it really needs: A safe facility where police can operate with more space, even in the worst of storms.
City staff recommend Option 9 instead of Option 6 because they don’t want all police operations within walking distance of city hall, the nucleus of city business.
“We don’t always attract the nicest customers,” Walker said, referring to criminals arrested by police. “It’s beneficial not to have some of our repeat customers walking in with people going into city hall for business, or during a council meeting.”
Option 9 would also add more parking for police and other city employees. The proposed location of the police station on Amherst is near the city’s fuel supply and water tank, so police could guard those resources. The location also has room for expansion, which wouldn’t be possible if the police station was near city hall, like Option 6 proposes. Staff reports say it makes more sense to have the public works employees near city hall, since residents visit the department for permits.
“Finally putting things in the city where they should be, and where they should have been, that’s Option 9,” Walker said. “We recommended it because it’s the long-term solution.”
But at Monday’s City Council Workshop, most council members left the room leaning towards Option 6. They asked the city’s architect to prepare more details about that plan and present them at the Oct. 26 city council meeting. Council members don’t like the fact that Option 9 calls for demolishing the 15-year-old Public Works Building.
“The problem is you have to tear down a pretty good building … There’s nothing wrong with it,” Guffey said. “The building has life in it.”
Guffey said he also doesn’t like Option 9’s proposal to renovate the space where police currently operate and then moving public works employees there. Guffey said he thinks the building is too far gone and renovations may cost much more than expected.
“People are going to say we’re crazy because we’re saying ‘we can’t use the police station’ and then turning around and using it,” he said. “It’s short sighted to repair or patch up the current police station.”
Councilman Steven Segal entered Monday’s meeting with the desire to support Option 9, because like city staff, he thinks that plan better serves the city’s long-term interest. But Segal is likely to switch to Option 6 as a compromise.
“What changed my mind is, I want to see a new police station,” Segal said. “I think I’m being practical … In a decision like this, I’m not going to get my way at everything. I’m doing what I think is best.”
So Segal will agree to a plan that puts the new police station on the grounds of city hall. But he said he anticipates a time, perhaps 30 years from now, when the current Public Works Building outlives its life cycle and needs to be replaced.
Segal said he hopes that the city council in charge at that time will consider flip-flopping the locations so the police move to a new station on Amherst Street, and the public works department moves in near city hall.
“When it comes down to it, we’re all sitting here trying to make a decision about what’s in the best interest of the city,” Segal said.
The city council will consider the police station options again on Monday. They hope to move plans along quickly to take advantage of the very competitive, low-cost construction marketplace that has come about due to the economic recession.