One size fits all: Public safety building sparks debate

The spectre of a new public safety administration building — with police, fire and ambulance operations at one site — is again haunting town budget deliberations, as the ghosts of renovation plans past lurk in the pages of budget documents and loom over discussions among town officials.

“The debate has to happen,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said Monday night.

The Board of Selectmen was conducting the first of a series of meetings on the 2017-18 budget.

The selectmen all seemed to accept that both the police station on East Ridge Road and the Catoonah Street firehouse need work — soon, if not necessarily next year.

The question is whether it makes more sense — and might be cheaper, in the long run — to combine the two in a new location, rather than renovate two separate, aging facilities.

“When you compare the two buildings, one’s no better than the other,” Marconi said Monday.

The firehouse’s shortcomings were evident to Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark.

“The trucks barely fit in the building,” she said.

Selectman Bob Hebert singled out the police station.

“They took a closet and they made into the ladies locker room. It’s dark and it’s really — something needs to be done,” he said.

“I think a decision has to be made,” Hebert said. “That building is …”

“Sad,” Marconi said.

“Really sad,” Hebert agreed.

There are $3.9 million worth of requests for 2017-18 that department heads have submitted for the town’s capital budget. The Five-Year Capital Improvement Plan extends to the 2021-22 fiscal year, listing anticipated needs — mostly construction projects or larger equipment purchases. Separate from the annual operating budget, the capital budget consists of larger expenditures for things that will last a number of years, and might be paid for with borrowing in the bond market.

The police department requested $90,000 to update plans for a renovated and expanded centralized dispatching facility — initially for next year, now pushed back to 2018-19.

This is followed by $6 million in construction costs to build the project, delayed from 2018-19 to 2020-21.

History

The fire department’s capital plan includes $45,000 for a “fire station 1 replacement study” this year, and also proposes “headquarters station renovations” that would be spread over two years — $85,000 for 2017-18, and $105,000 in 2018-19.

Both departments’ capital plan submissions include supporting documents.

“Fire headquarters was built in 1908 and is in need of repairs. The doors are not high enough for modern fire apparatus and there is no storage room,” the department’s submission says.

The police department’s plans has some history.

A 1998-99 study committee on centralized dispatching recommended that a dispatching facility to serve police, fire and ambulance operations be housed at police headquarters.

“In Feb. 2002 a plan was formed by an architecture firm to reconstruct a new headquarters on the existing site: this $14 million project was firmly met with negative opinion by the residents of Ridgefield,” the police budget request says. “As a result the proposed plan was set aside and a committee was formed to once again study this project. …

“The final plan approved by all boards was to renovate and expand the existing police headquarters, to include centralized dispatch for police, fire and ambulance services,” it says.

“The study and review process was an investment of time and money to present a practical, cost effective recommendation to the community of Ridgefield,” the police request concludes. “This process has produced plans and construction-ready documents. To date the town has invested over three-quarters of a million dollars in preparation for this project.”

An email from Controller Kevin Redmond explains that the police requests had been pushed back in preliminary budget work that he and Marconi do before sending documents to the Board of Selectmen.

The $6-million police headquarters renovation project was moved from fiscal year 2018-19 to 2020-21, “which dovetails with our goal of getting outstanding debt at the $50 million level” by the end of fiscal year 2020-21, Redmond said.

Delaying that construction allowed the $90,000 for updating the architectural plans to be pushed back to 2018-19 from this coming year.

Opposition?

In Monday’s discussion, Hebert said the police officials seemed resistant to the concept of a combined police and fire facility.

“There’s support for a combined safety center, and the only opposition is the police,” Hebert said.

The selectmen also kicked around the question of where a combined public safety center might be built — if that seemed the best solution.

“Where the blue trailer is?” Selectman Steve Zemo suggested, referring to the Goodwill trailer off Old Quarry Road by the former Schlumberger property.

“We own the land,” Zemo said.

Hebert was skeptical.

“I think you have ingress and egress issues getting out of there all day long,” he said.

Powwow

A police department delegation — the chief and major, a few commission members — came to the selectmen’s budget review session Tuesday, and the building project came up at the very end. The selectmen said they wanted to put together a joint meeting — maybe with the finance board, too — to talk about the issue.

“As a board we just thought we should all sit down,” said Kozlark.

“It’s a big number,” added Marconi.

The police department representatives were fine with that.

Police Commission member George Kane smiled.

“It will be a long discussion,” he said.