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St. Petersburg's latest sticker shock: $74M new police headquarters

ST. PETERSBURG — The crumbling Pier needs to be rebuilt. The Tampa Bay Rays want a new stadium. The city may have to spend millions to do both.

Which is why this is clearly bad news at a bad time: St. Petersburg also needs to spend $74 million to replace its aging police headquarters.

What's more, the city will not have the $50 million in Penny for Pinellas money it was hoping to spend on the project. Falling sales tax revenue may leave the city with just $37.5 million, half of what it might need to build a facility.

The news was delivered to the City Council at a recent workshop where a consultant unveiled a $95,000 report detailing just how bad the old facility is and what the new facility will need.

"I saw the raised eyebrows when the sticker shock arrived," said public works director Mike Connors.

"Have you seen our budget?" asked City Council member Bill Dudley.

"I don't think we can afford this," said City Council member Karl Nurse.

Part of the sticker shock is that the police force has needs — some mandated by the state — that go beyond office space: It needs cells, shooting ranges, climate-controlled evidence storage, a 450-car garage — and it all has to be able to operate 24 hours a day.

The new building also will house the city's new emergency operations center, so it has to withstand Category 5 hurricane winds.

"I don't like the price either," Mayor Bill Foster told the council. "But we're not building a new school board building."

• • •

The St. Petersburg Police Department operates out of two buildings. The main, four-story headquarters — actually two buildings fused together — is at 1300 First Ave. N. Patrol, detectives, communications and administration are all there. The older half is 60 years old. The addition was built 36 years ago.

The police annex building is across the street, at 1301 First Avenue N. It houses training and forensics. It's about 80 years old.

All told, that's 131,539 square feet of working space. A consultant hired by the city said that's not enough. In 30 years the department's personnel have grown 40 percent, according to Ian Reeves, vice president of Architects Design Group Inc. It now accommodates up to 540 officers and 1,500 total employees and volunteers.

But cramped quarters is just one of the problems the consultant outlined: The armory is too small; basic systems that heat and cool the buildings are inefficient and failing; there's no secured parking; and the buildings can't withstand hurricane-force winds.

"Our biggest issue is that none of these buildings meet minimum code for wind," said city architect J. Raul Quintana.

A 450-car garage is recommended to provide added security and give the police force a central location to hunker down in during a hurricane. In the past, officers have ridden out storms in fire stations, evacuation shelters and their own apparently vulnerable building.

The 30-member emergency operations center would move to the new building. It is currently located at the Water Resources Department's operations building at 1635 Third Ave. N. The water department has the only two buildings in the city rated to withstand 160 mph gusts, the high-end of what a Category 5 storm would produce.

Unfortunately, the city's fiber-optic hub doesn't run through those buildings. It still runs through the old police building.

"That is not a hurricane re­inforced structure," Reeves said. "You could face a significant outage if that system is compromised."

Some working conditions are just intolerable. Take the climate-control system for forensic evidence, for example.

"The smells there are almost overwhelming," Reeves said. "It's not a healthy working environment."

• • •

So the only question is: How can a city already mulling hundreds of millions in other expenditures pay for another expensive project in the middle of a dismal economy?

"We have different money sources for these different projects," said council member Jeff Danner. "Unfortunately they're all hitting at once when you don't have a whole lot of money to supplement them."

Danner and other officials said that when the city set aside $50 million in penny money, no one thought it would be enough to cover the entire cost. Officials stress this is just the start of thinking about a new headquarters and how to pay for it. Is it cheaper to borrow to build in a depressed market? If the debt service is too high, is it better to build and pay in phases? Whatever the city decides, federal grant money could help by paying for the parking garage and emergency operations center.

It would take a year to plan and two years to build a new facility. But there's no pressure — or a time frame — to build anytime soon.

"We've been putting up with it for a number of years," said police Chief Chuck Harmon. "These aren't new problems."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

St. Petersburg's latest sticker shock: $74M new police headquarters 06/18/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 18, 2010 11:28pm]

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