Poll shows residents oppose new $60M St. Petersburg police headquarters

ST. PETERSBURG — The police force works out of a building that is cramped, outdated and beyond saving.

But while the city's leaders grapple with the eight-figure price of a new police headquarters, a poll shows that residents oppose the project.

The poll, recently commissioned by the St. Petersburg Times and Bay News 9, showed that 56 percent of St. Petersburg residents disapprove of plans to spend $60 million to build a modern home for the St. Petersburg Police Department.

"I think they can definitely use the money for something else that's needed," said Maureen Roland, a 32-year-old mortgage consultant.

Not only is opposition strong but support for the project is especially weak. Only 26 percent approved of the project, while 17 percent are still undecided.

The phone poll of 303 residents was conducted this month by Braun Research. The margin of error was plus or minus 5.6 percentage points.

Mayor Bill Foster and Police Chief Chuck Harmon took the blame for the low approval rating, saying they haven't yet tried to sell the public on the need for the project. Even critics admit that the headquarters at 1300 First Ave. N — a 60-year-old structure melded to a 37-year-old addition — needs to be replaced.

But City Council member Karl Nurse said the price doesn't mesh with the economic reality: The city faces declining tax revenue and more budget cuts.

"I understand the logic for a new building," Nurse said. "I just think they ought to dial it down to a number that reflects what we have the ability to do."

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The 1,500-strong force has outgrown its 132,000 square feet of workspace, a consultant reported last year. The old building costs too much to heat and cool; there's not enough room to work or store evidence; it's not rated to withstand hurricane winds; and the interior is dank and deteriorating.

"It's getting to be uninhabitable for the men and women who work here," Harmon said.

City planners said rehabbing the old building would be a waste of money, and building in phases would cost too much.

So in May, the mayor and city council decided the most cost-effective option was to build a new structure on city land on First Avenue N, across from the current headquarters.

The plan is to spend around $60 million on a four-story, 200,000 square-foot, hurricane-reinforced building with a 400-car parking garage that could shelter the entire police fleet during a storm.

When the city first envisioned replacing the police building a decade ago, it planned to pay for it with $50 million in Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue.

But the downturn has whittled those funds down to $32 million. St. Petersburg will likely have to finance the rest. City planners, though, say it's still a good time to build thanks to low construction and borrowing costs.

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One of the residents polled who supports the project also works there: police information clerk Adrienne Forehand, 54.

"There's areas that leak when it rains," she said. "The place is so antiquated. Tiles fall from the ceiling. It's just an old building. The maintenance people do a good job of keeping it up. But you can only fix so much."

But others polled couldn't get past the price.

"I do want to support the Police Department," said Rita Beauchamp, 60. "But that amount of money seems excessive."

She said she wouldn't want the cost of the police building to take away from other programs that could help reduce crime.

Nurse said the new building doesn't need to be as big or as pricey as city planners envision. He wants the size, scope and price scaled back.

"The pot is not going to get any bigger," he said.

Public Works Administrator Mike Connors said the city is already doing that. It has cut 30,000 square-feet from the footprint and hopes federal grants will help defray some of the cost. The city could also sell the land under the old headquarters to help pay for the new one.

2012 will be critical for the project. The City Council will have to decide how to pay for it and hire an architect. The city hopes to finish the project within three years or so. The mayor said he'll start selling the idea in January and hopes to turn around that low approval rating.

"That one's on me," Foster said. "We're early in the process, but we need to do a better job educating the people."

Retiree Gene Bates, 85, had doubts about the project until he heard what's wrong with the old building. Still, he wondered: Can St. Petersburg afford it?

"Money is tight," he said. "It's a hard call to make."

Poll shows residents oppose new $60M St. Petersburg police headquarters 12/26/11 [Last modified: Monday, December 26, 2011 8:35am]

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