St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and the City Council need to get creative in finding more money to build a new police headquarters for a department stuck in a dilapidated building. This is about following through on a promise to taxpayers and meeting a high priority, not building a palace for law enforcement. All options, including a temporary property tax increase, should be on the table.
Foster has scrapped plans long in the making to replace the police department's 60-year-old First Avenue N headquarters with a $64 million, 200,000-square-foot building and parking garage across the street. The Penny for Pinellas sales tax, which was originally supposed to cover $50 million of the cost, would contribute just $32 million because of the slumping economy. That leaves the city another $32 million short, and it already faces a $15 million budget shortfall for the coming year.
Still, the need to move forward for a new headquarters is no less pressing. More than 2,000 officers, civilian employees and volunteers are shoehorned into an outdated 130,000-square-foot building. There is little room to store evidence or question people. Critical forensic evidence such as DNA samples are at risk of being compromised in an unventilated crime lab. In short, the building is a miscarriage of justice waiting to happen.
So the mayor and the council members have to go back to the drawing board. One option that should be ruled out is spending $7 million on delayed repairs to the current building. That is only tossing good money after bad. But giving up entirely is not a solution, and a new police station was the centerpiece of the city's promises to voters in how it would spend Penny for Pinellas money. There have to be better options, including scaling back building plans, postponing construction of the garage and raising more money. With $32 million still in hand, the mayor and City Council ought to be able to come up with a plan that meets today's law enforcement demands and leaves room for future expansion.
Foster should look to one his predecessors. In 1999, Mayor David Fischer successfully championed a one-time 50 cent per $1,000 property tax increase to buy and preserve a city treasure, Sunken Gardens. There is still time to ask voters this year to approve a short-term property tax increase to help pay for a new police station, and there may be ways for the city to borrow money.
The mayor had no choice but to acknowledge the city cannot afford a new $64 million police station. But this is a festering problem that previous administrations have failed to address, and now it's in the laps of Foster and the City Council. Further delay and wasting money on the existing building are not viable alternatives. Foster and the City Council should explore all options to raise more money and scale back building plans until the available cash and projected cost match.