A new police station? Fire station? Study will consider future needs

Ridgefield’s police headquarters is in a converted 1890s mansion on East Ridge that was a regional state police station from the 1930s to the 1970s. — Macklin Reid photo

A new police station? A new fire station? Both in one? Maybe just renovate the two current buildings — a converted Victorian mansion that serves as a police station, and a firehouse that dates to the era of horse-drawn fire wagons?

The town needs to figure out what it wants to do. And town officials are seeking the help of a consultant to study the multiplicity of issues that need to be factored in — department needs, changing missions, population growth, town geography.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi described the situation with both police and fire headquarters when talking to the Board of Finance about the needs during a recent budget workshop.

“Just take a look at what that building is like,” Marconi said of the police station.

“Every time a project was done they didn’t take out the old wires, they added new wires.”

And the Catoonah Street firehouse is more than a century old.

“The firehouse was built in 1896, after the great fire,” Marconi said.

The selectmen have set aside $40,000 to $60,000 for a study that will try to answer some of the overview questions.

“Do we stay there? Do we do two buildings? Do we do one? All that,” Marconi told the finance board.

Retired fire Lt. Brian Jones stands in front of the fire engines outside of Ridgefield fire headquarters on Catoonah Street. — Steve Coulter photo

Proposals, meetings

Marconi wants the Police Commission and the Board of Selectmen — which functions as the town’s Fire Commission — and to get together and review a “request for proposals” or “RFP” that will go out for the study.

“We’re scheduling a joint meeting to approve the RFP, and the RFP hopefully, will go out some time next week,” Marconi said Tuesday, April 30.

“And that hopefully, will be an RFP by invitation to three companies that have extensive experience in assessing the needs to those respective departments today and well into the future.”

He described for The Press what town officials are looking for.

“A needs assessment and size analysis,” he said. “Really, what we want to do is take a snapshot of where are are today: Square footage. How many people? Can the buildings that we are in today be upgraded to accommodate not only today’s needs, but into the future? And if they cannot, what should we look at — and that’s any scenario you can possibly look at.

“We want to be sure the people of Ridgefield, the taxpayers of Ridgefield, understand that both the Police Commission and Board of Selectmen are looking at the best case scenario relative to the efficient operations of both departments: Delivery of service, at the best price,” Marconi said.

“Price won’t necessarily dictate what we can do,” he added. “Because if we cannot accommodate, say, a firehouse at the current Catoonah Street location, then we’re going to have to figure something out. Do we keep that station? Build another smaller one? Sell that station? All these possibilities will be studied and the same will be applied to the Police Department.

“We’ll also be looking at: Do you build one building and share the facility?”

There will likely be a couple of phases to the effort.

“Right now, phase one is to collect all of the information on the current state of our buildings,” Marconi said. “…When we feel that we have completed the first phase that is when, and only when, we will move on to the second phase, in which we’ll be doing a more in-depth analysis relative to cost.”

Timing and debt

The police department and Police Commission have been lobbying for several years to have a building renovation or replacement project, but Marconi and the selectmen haven’t been in a big hurry. Part of their thinking has been to hold off on the project until a time when borrowing for the construction won’t hit taxpayers too hard because the town’s debt service will have started to decline.

Town debt hit a peak of about $140 million shortly after 2000, when voters approved major borrowing for the $90 million “school bundle” — renovations to to all school buildings, expansion of the high school, construction of the recreation center. The school bundle came close on the heels of borrowing for the $34 million Scotts Ridge Middle School.

The debt is projected at about $64 million at the end of the current fiscal year in June 2019.

And debt service payments — currently running about $11 million a year, $9 million principal and $2 million interest — are projected to decline considerably after that last of the school bundle payments is made in 2023.

“We’re getting to the end of that,” Marconi said of the school bundle repayment.

The actual construction that comes out of the studies the town is undertaking will have to be paid for, of course. Those costs will be worked into the debt forecasts — along with some other projected expenses. These include general taxpayers’ $8 million share of the $48 million sewer plant project, and whatever work comes out of studies now looking at what needs to be done to bring the town into better compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“We have put in a number, to see how it impacts out debt retirement schedule,” Marconi said. “…We wanted to be sure we get our debt service down.”

$10 million? $20 million?

The police department had put $10 million in the five-year capital plan, but Controller Kevin Redmond increased that estimate.

“In our schedule, Kevin put in a number of $20 million,” Marconi told the finance board. “I don’t think that’s going to be enough, to be honest with you…

“It depends on what we can do. That’s why we’re doing this study.”

But Marconi told The Press that the study will look at the broader picture.

“Price won’t necessarily dictate what we can do,” he said. “Because if we cannot accommodate, say, a firehouse at the current Catonnah Street location, then we’re going to have to figure something out. Do we keep that station? Build a second smaller one? Sell that station? All these possibilities will be looked at, and the same will be applied to the Police Department. We’ll also be looking at: Do you build one building and share the facility?”

People who have doubts about the need for upgrading the police and fire facilities are welcome to tour the buildings.

“Anyone who wants a tour can call,” Marconi said. “They’re certainly safe and can accommodate current operations, but are in need of an upgrade.”

When Marconi discussed the plan with Board of Finance, board member Amy Freidenrich asked if selling the current police station might help offset the cost.

Marconi was skeptical.

“We’re talking $25-to-$28 million. What are you going to get for that property?” Marconi said.

There’s another factor weighing against sale of the police station property.

“We have the tower there,” Marconi said.

The radio tower not only serves police communications but hosts equipment from numerous cell phone companies. “That’s $125,000 year in revenue,” Marconi said.

Combining forces?

Finance board member Sean Connelly wondered if any consideration was being given to “not just a combined building, but a combined force.”

There has been talk of combining functions, such as dispatching, although that has met with some resistance, Marconi said, as has state interest in regionalizing 911 call answering.

There’s also skepticism about regionalizing departments.

“With regionalization, you look at Georgetown. Four come together in Georgetown — Ridgefield, Redding, Wilton and Weston,” Marconi said.

“We’ve discussed it. We know it would be a tough sell,” he added. “The chiefs association would be opposed.”

There’s also been public concern about other regionalization efforts — most intense, but not solely, concerning schools.

“We will fight county government tooth and nail,” Marconi told the finance board.

“It’s another layer of government,” added Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark.

For the study that will soon begin, up to $62,000 was approved in 2017.

Three firms likely to be asked for proposals on phase one — the needs assessment study. They are: Jacunski Humes Architects, Kaestle Boos Associates, and Drummey Rosane Anderson Inc.

“All three have extensive experience in completing space needs assessments,” Marconi said.

“We have not put a time requirement on any of this,” Marconi said. “When we feel that we have completed the first phase, that is when and only when we will move on to the second phase, which we’ll be doing a more in-depth analysis relative to cost.”

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