Even in tough economic times, there are certain investments a city should not neglect. Public safety is one of them. Nearly five decades after building its last police headquarters, St. Petersburg needs to erect a new one. The sooner the city moves forward to begin construction, the better.
Both the city's population and scientific advancement in crime fighting have grown since the current headquarters on First Avenue N was built. The department protects roughly 25 percent more people than it did when the building opened. And in its present condition, the building has become an overcrowded rat-trap, lacking vital climate-controlled evidence rooms — a must considering the importance of today's DNA-driven forensics technology — or even proper holding areas for prisoners. The current facility also falls far short of meeting hurricane standards, not to mention post 9/11 security concerns.
A new home for the Police Department won't be cheap. Mayor Bill Foster, police Chief Chuck Harmon and other city leaders are weighing two proposals for a department complex. One design plan envisions a $64 million, 230,000-square-foot facility; the other, a more modest $32 million proposal, calls for a smaller station, and would also renovate the existing headquarters on First Avenue N.
Both Foster and Harmon insist they have explored other alternatives to meeting the department's future needs, such as relocating the force to existing and vacant downtown office space, as the Tampa Police Department did some years ago. But downtown St. Petersburg offers no similar cost-effective options for the department.
Spending $64 million on a new facility is a bitter financial pill for the city to swallow, given the fall in property values and the corresponding drop in tax revenue. But ensuring that law enforcement will have a facility and the resources it needs to function in the aftermath of a hurricane or other disaster is not a vanity, it is a vital public interest. Plus, $32 million of that price tag is available from the Penny For Pinellas sales tax money set aside for a new police headquarters. And a drop in demand for the building industry may save the city on costs.
It's time for the mayor and the City Council to develop a plan to build a new police headquarters that meets St. Petersburg's public safety needs today and into the future.