Sunday, December 17, 2017
News Roundup

Lack of money forces Foster to drop plans for $64 million police station

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster said he's scrapping plans to build a $64 million police station because of a lack of money.

"I'm not sure it makes sense," Foster said. "Even if it (the station) costs only $50 million, we're still $20 million short."

Foster's decision wipes out years of planning to replace a facility so outdated and inefficient that even the project's critics agree the current station is unacceptable.

The city has about $32 million for the project, which comes from revenue raised from Pinellas County's penny sales tax that voters approved in 2007. The station had been a flagship project used to promote the tax, which initially was expected to bring in about $50 million for the project.

St. Petersburg once envisioned a four-story, 200,000 square-foot, hurricane-reinforced building with a 400-space parking garage that could shield the entire police fleet from a storm, operate around the clock seven days a week and provide modern crime-fighting amenities like climate-controlled storage for DNA.

But as the economy slumped, tax revenues dropped significantly, leaving a gaping shortfall for the proposed station.

Foster has been unable to find money to plug that hole. Earlier this month, Pinellas County officials rejected a request by Foster to divert another $20 million in sales tax money for it.

That refusal spoiled Foster's last-ditch effort to get the money needed for the project. Last week, he told his staff to review alternatives that include repairing the existing station, phasing in a scaled down project of up to $32 million, or building the entire station and hoping they get the rest of the money at a later date.

"One thing I do know is we won't build a new ($64 million) station any time soon," Foster said Thursday.

The St. Petersburg Police Department operates out of two buildings. The main four-story building at 1300 First Ave. N is actually two buildings awkwardly fused together. One half was built in the 1950s, the other in the 1970s. Across the street is an 80-year-old police annex.

That's 130,000 square feet of work space for a department that in 30 years has nearly doubled in size: The city now has up to 545 officers and 1,500 total employees and volunteers. By 2025, consultants estimated, the police will need 237,000 square feet.

The buildings feel ancient and cramped and are expensive to maintain. There isn't enough room to store evidence or question people. The crime lab has no ventilation, leaving behind peculiar smells.

Even the project's biggest critic, City Council member Karl Nurse, doesn't doubt that something has to be done.

"I have been through the station and the evidence room is just an unbelievable disaster," Nurse said. "Our version of CSI is a joke."

There's no secured parking. Employees park outside by the bars. The holding cells are used for storage. Patrons of Ferg's sports bar can watch prisoners being loaded in transport vans in the parking lot.

"Our police station, it's almost a disgrace for a city our size," said council member Bill Dudley.

The facility needs $7 million in repairs. That amount climbed so high because it was expected the city would build a new station as early as 2013, so regular maintenance was delayed.

The options Foster now wants to consider were already rejected by council members last year. A study of the project concluded that rehabbing the station wasn't worth the money. Phasing in the project was also considered inefficient. Foster said he's aware of these objections but said the options need to be reviewed again.

"We thought we could generate monies to build the new facility," he said. "We got to do what we got to do with what we have."

Public support for a new headquarters has been anemic. A 2011 poll commissioned by the Times and Bay News 9 showed that 56 percent of residents disapproved of the project. Even worse, only 26 percent of the 303 residents polled actually supported it while 17 percent were undecided.

Council members greeted Foster's decision with a combination of resignation, relief and a sense of urgency on what to do next.

"It's just that nobody's got any money, that's just a fact of life," Dudley said. "I think we all knew this was coming."

"Spending $64 million on that station was not practical for the budget situation that we're in," said council Chair Leslie Curran. "What we need to do is start from scratch with alternatives and look carefully at renovation."

The project fell victim to financial pressures that have become all too common for the public sector, said Mike Connors, the city's public works administrator. During more flush times, the city might have borrowed money. But next year's budget faces a deficit of $15 million, making the prospect of paying debt service on borrowed money more difficult, he said.

While St. Petersburg retreats, Pinellas County is still planning to build an $81 million public safety complex. It will house the Sheriff's Office and emergency operations center in a storm-hardened facility to be finished by 2014.

Whatever the city builds, it won't come close to resembling the $64 million version Foster once favored. Police will have to endure their current home a little longer, too.

"We function in it today. We can function in it tomorrow," said police Chief Chuck Harmon. "But it will get more expensive to repair and maintain."

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