No reason to share: Police reject idea for multi-purpose station

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
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 combined police and fire station — opposed by an unwavering deployment of police officials Monday night — is a concept the selectmen still want to study.

The capital budget approved by the selectmen Tuesday night includes $65,000 for study of a combined public safety administration building that would serve both departments.

“If we’re going to hire a consultant to study a fire station, why not do a police station as well, so we can be confident for the public in the direction we go?” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said Tuesday.

“All emergency services for the town of Ridgefield,” agreed Selectman Steve Zemo.

Police Commission member Tom Reynolds told the selectmen Monday that fire and police departments are “totally different things.”

“One is less expensive than two,” said Marconi, summarizing the case for a public safety administration building that would house both police and fire departments, rather than separate multimillion-dollar projects to replace both stations.

Police Chief John Roche argued against a combined facility, citing the “sensitive nature” of situations the police deal with day in and day out.

“Juveniles, domestic violence, sexual assaults,” Roche said. “We have court mandates: Parents meet in front of our building and exchange children.”

A lone police station protects privacy.

“There’s not a lot of prying eyes,” Roche said. “I think privacy is something that is foremost.”

“You don’t think these issues could be overcome using proper design?” asked Selectman Bob Hebert.

“Think of a duplex,” suggested Selectman Steve Zemo. “On one side is a blue door, and on the other side is a red door. One area’s parking for blue, on the other side red …”

The hourlong discussion involved 16 town officials seated around a table — and more in the audience.

The talk session was prompted by the selectmen’s review of a five-year capital plan that includes multiple requests for upgrades to police and fire facilities.

The five-year capital plan proposes:

  • $45,000 in 2017-18 for a study of where to put a new fire department.
  • $85,000 in 2017-18 for renovations to the Catoonah Street firehouse, including renovations to the first-floor bathroom, addition of a shower and air conditioning.
  • $105,000 in 2018-19 to continue renovating the Catoonah firehouse, including office modifications, and renovation of the second-floor bathroom.
  • $90,000 in 2018-19 to update code compliance on architectural plans, more than a decade old, for the renovation of the police station and its expansion to include centralized dispatching for police, fire and ambulance services.
  • $6 million in 2020-21 for construction work on the police station renovation and expansion of the centralized dispatching.

“I think everyone at this table agrees the police department and fire department are both desperately in need of updated facilities,” said Hebert. “It’s time.”

What makes sense?

The question the selectmen wanted to explore was whether a combined police and fire project made more sense.

The Police Commission produced a list of 22 neighboring communities — all with separate police and fire departments, none with a combined facility.

“No town in Fairfield County does that,” Tom Reynolds said.

Acting Fire Chief Jerry Myers was flexible on the “one project or two” question.

“I’m in favor of square footage,” Myers said. “Give me more square footage that is not in a 100-year-old building that’s ailing, and I’m in favor of it.”

The selectmen made it clear that they weren’t advocating for a combined public safety administration building for both police and fire. But they’re leery of asking taxpayers to put more money into plans for separate stations without first looking at the idea of a combined facility — on the assumption it would probably be less costly.

“If we do put it before the public, they’re going to expect we did due diligence on every option,” Selectman Steve Zemo said. “We need to vet out all the options. We need to commission one comprehensive study.”

Waiting game

The police officials said they’ve done all the preliminary work, and have been waiting years to move ahead on a project that began with a 1998-99 study by a central dispatch committee. Their plans have moved through a variety of options: building a new headquarters elsewhere; tearing down the current station and rebuilding in the same location; and, finally — the least costly and most practical solution — renovating and expanding the existing police station to include centralized dispatching.

“We’ve looked at other options. We’ve had three or four different committees over the years,” Police Commission Chairman Joe Savino told the selectmen. “We think it’s a good option. It’s a central location.”

“We looked at a green site. We looked at rebuild,” Roche said. “We looked at going up. We looked at going out.”

The department’s capital budget summary states: “To date, the town has invested over three-quarters of a million dollars in preparation for this project.”

‘Old bones’

First Selectman Rudy Marconi was sympathetic, but still had concerns.

“It’s a beautiful building. The question is: Does it work for modern police work? And will it work for the next 20 years?” Marconi said.

“We all know the bones of the building — it’s an old building. Is it worth it? Do you put more money into old bones?”