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St. Petersburg eyes new police headquarters, grimaces at price tag

ST. PETERSBURG — Gone is the firing range for police officer training.

Also scrapped: Room for the information technology department so the city's computer network would be protected in a catastrophic storm.

St. Petersburg leaders are wrestling with decisions about how, what and when to build a new police headquarters. Plans range from a nine-story tower that will cost $66 million to a cheaper, phased approach for $32 million that calls for building a smaller station and then refurbishing the existing headquarters.

Scrapping extras, like the firing range and room for IT, will save $6.5 million from a project the city already is struggling to afford. The city's share of Penny for Pinellas sales tax money set aside for police construction has plummeted with the economy. There's now $32 million available, almost $6 million less than last year's estimate.

That means St. Petersburg would have to finance upwards of $30 million to build it. Council member Karl Nurse said he wasn't sure how they could justify that kind of spending in hard times.

"We're cutting library hours," he said, "yet it's almost like 'sure, no problem, we'll build something with $30 million we don't have.' "

At a recent workshop, the mayor and council seemed to lean toward a $64 million plan to build a 230,000-square-foot complex on the north side of First Avenue N, across from the current headquarters.

The city doesn't own all the land at that site. The City Council is poised to consider on Thursday paying $1 million for two acres there owned by AAA Auto Club South Inc.

Like the current building, the favored option would be four floors. But it would have a much wider footprint, giving the department 100,000 more square feet.

It would be hardened for a Category 5 hurricane, have a 300-car parking garage, climate-controlled evidence rooms and prisoner cells — amenities the current building doesn't have.

Building costs skyrocket after four floors, said Mike Connors, the city's public works administrator, making the tower option expensive.

And building in phases or trying to rehab the old building "would just be throwing good money after bad," he said.

Council member Bill Dudley also ruled out building in phases or trying to cut too many corners. He warned against building something that would be obsolete by the time it's done. He compared it to building a school that needs portable classrooms by opening day.

"It doesn't make sense to do a little bit here and a little bit there," Dudley told his council colleagues at last week's workshop.

Council member Herb Polson threw out the most radical idea: he said the city should consider eliminating the new police dispatch center to make room for the city's IT department.

By the time the new building is done, he said, Pinellas County may have consolidated its myriad emergency dispatch services.

But St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon shot that idea down. His police force needs its own dispatchers, he said, and consolidation is years away from being feasible.

"Every city in the county and the sheriff would have to be on board to do that," Harmon said, "and I don't know, given the economic climate, if anyone has the funds to make it happen."

The city's information and communication services can remain in the Municipal Services Building at 1 Fourth Street N, Connors said, and the city is working on stormproofing that building.

Construction on the new police facility is expected to start within the next decade. But while the city still needs to decide what to build and how to pay for it, Mayor Bill Foster said there's little doubt of the need. The current police complex, he told the council, is cramped, decrepit and barely functional.

"If you haven't been on a tour of all four floors at SPPD, I would love to take you," Foster said. "It's Barney Miller times 100. Or the show after that, Hill Street Blues. It's cramped and it's bad."

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

What's next?

This week: The City Council will consider paying $1 million for 2 acres across the street from its current police headquarters on First Avenue N.

This year: City leaders will continue to discuss which proposed plan to build and how to pay for it. The city will likely have to finance more than $30 million of the final price. They hope to start construction within the next decade.

St. Petersburg eyes new police headquarters, grimaces at price tag 05/03/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 4, 2011 10:17am]

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