News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Flashpoint

July 29, 2011

FLASHPOINT: Fact-based decisions needed for new police headquarters

TERRE HAUTE — A recent Flashpoint opinion (“Smart decisions needed for new police headquarters,” July 25, 2011) discussing options for a new police headquarters deserves a fact-based, public conversation versus the politically based accusations and generalized theories that were contained in the opinion. When I took office in January 2008, I found that the previous administration had allowed for an automatic, four-year renewal of the existing building lease at 1211 Wabash Ave. Furthermore, there were no plans for a long-term solution to the supposed “temporary” situation. My promise has always been that we will not sign another four-year lease and that we get the police department into a taxpayer-owned facility. The preference all along has been to build a new facility but only if the budget could support it.         

Many hours of extensive research have occurred to date on possible building sites, potential facility design and financing options. We put a team of police officers together in 2008 to recommend the general needs of a new facility and we continue those discussions today. Their input helped to identify options that might meet our needs. We looked at various vacant properties, existing buildings, City Hall, and even the current police headquarters building. All of these options have numerous pros and cons.

Here are some key facts regarding our findings to date:

• The square footage required for a police department building is a minimum of 25,000 square feet. This is based on current usage, unmet needs and some future growth space. The building, parking lot and security buffer (green space, etc.) require an area nearly the size of a square city block. A single-story facility with a full basement and parking spaces for 100 vehicles would fulfill our needs.

• Our search for suitable and affordable property did not yield many viable options. High priced vacant land and existing buildings that would need significant modification were simply too expensive to pursue based on our ability to cash flow a mortgage or bond payment.

• We explored using the City Hall parking lot for a new building, but this option creates a serious issue. Placing the building on the existing parking lot that is shared by the city and the county would eliminate a minimum of 50 current parking spaces (not including a mandated security perimeter). The Police Department utilizes 100 parking spaces each day at its current location. Even after moving several departments out of City Hall, the net loss of 150+ parking spaces (out of the current 314 spaces) would require us to purchase neighboring land to meet the parking demands of employees and visitors.

• We also evaluated the possible purchase of the existing leased police department building. The engineering firm we hired to inspect the facility found that it was aging quickly, and would require significant, long-term capital improvements to maintain its functionality and meet current building codes.

• During this same time period, we worked closely with our financial consultant, Umbaugh & Associates, to run various scenarios of revenue streams and cash-flow projections to determine financing options. We confirmed that our significant loss of revenue (about $8 million per year) due to property tax caps has resulted in our financing options being very limited, but not impossible to work with.

• In January of 2011, the city took control of the former Riverbank Fitness facility in Fairbanks Park. This has provided an opportunity to explore potential uses of that facility, including the possible relocation of some city offices that would free up space in City Hall for other uses such as the police department. 

• Within the last 30 days, another unique opportunity has surfaced. This involves suitable real estate that can be acquired for a very affordable price and would provide a variety of options to consider.

The Flashpoint article also included numerous unsubstantiated statements that need to be addressed:

• I have been accused of scrambling to keep a campaign promise. This could not be further from the truth. The bottom line is that we must be diligent in researching all options and finding a solution that will meet both the needs of the police department and the city budget.

• It is described as a bad idea to move administrative functions out of City Hall. However, it is a very common practice in many communities that various components of local government are located in different buildings. It is ridiculous to assert that our citizens will be inconvenienced, or won't be able to be properly served by simply moving some offices to another building.

• At no point in time have I ever seriously considered, or even hinted to the public, that we were going to move the police department into the former Riverbank Fitness building. I have publicly stated over and over again that our goal is to reopen the facility with a tenant who can deliver similar services as before. Since the closing of that facility, we have had about 20 interested parties. That list has now been reduced to only one entity that is still considering leasing part of the building. The main problem is the overall cost to operate a 36,000-square-foot building. By splitting the operating cost between two tenants, it makes it much more feasible to get someone to lease the facility, and that is the current direction of the City.

 • The comment that moving the police department back into City Hall with little more space than it had before is another false statement. When the police department previously occupied City Hall, it shared the building with most other city departments. If various City Hall occupants are moved, the police would have nearly twice the space they previously occupied and actually have more space than they have in their current, leased location.

• It was noted that a “variety of tools” could be used to finance a new facility. This remark leads one to believe that we have not considered funding options. As stated earlier, we have been looking at various options for a couple of years. An important fact is that there are no state or federal Department of Homeland Security grants for building a new police station. Competitive grant funding does, however, exist for fire stations and emergency management operation centers (EOC) and the state of Indiana has only received one grant for EOC construction since the program began.  The Housing and Urban Development funds we receive are specifically targeted to improving neighborhoods via streets, sidewalks and storm sewers along with new housing stock. In addition, the writer failed to mention that our local HUD funding continues to be cut each year due to federal budget cuts. A bond with guaranteed income streams is also suggested. The problem is that only one of our significant revenue streams (Economic Development Income Tax) is not tied to property taxes. We could use the EDIT revenue to help fund a facility, but, it would be at the expense of other major infrastructure projects scheduled for the next few years.    

The solution that is ultimately selected will likely serve our community for many years to come.  Unfortunately, the writer's ideas do not reflect the reality of the current municipal funding environment or the significant debt the city incurred prior to 2008. The commitment I made to get the police department into a fully functional taxpayer-owned facility will be achieved. Making the right decision at the right time for both the police department and the taxpayers on this critical project is much more important than political grandstanding.

Incumbent Mayor Duke Bennett is the Republican candidate for mayor in the Nov. 8 general election..

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