As a recent citywide poll suggests, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and police Chief Chuck Harmon have their work cut out for them in reversing negative public opinion on a proposal to build a new, $60 million police headquarters. But even in tough economic times, it's important to make investments in key government services. The city's antiquated police headquarters needs to be replaced, and the challenge for city leaders is to find a way to do it.
Clearly, the public still needs to be convinced that the large edifice at 1300 First Ave N is overdue for replacement. A telephone poll of 303 city residents commissioned by the St. Petersburg Times and Bay News 9 by Braun Research showed 56 percent of respondents disapproved of spending an estimated $60 million to build a new facility across the street. And support for a new headquarters is, at best, tepid. Only 26 percent of those polled approved, and 17 percent were undecided.
The sour public opinion appears rooted, understandably, in the project's huge price tag in an era when dropping property values have stripped millions in tax revenues from the city's coffers, forcing service cuts. And the plan to finance much of the construction with Penny for Pinellas money, the optional 1-cent sales tax, is also falling short. Where $50 million was supposed to be available, the number now looks more like $32 million.
To date, Foster, Harmon and the rest of City Hall have done little to fully publicize the woes of the current facility of 132,000 square feet that serves a department of 1,500. The problems in the mishmash of buildings dating to 1951 include outdated environmental systems that threaten to ruin criminal evidence, cramped quarters, a lack of usable prisoner holding cells, and construction that doesn't come close to meeting hurricane standards in a city surrounded by water.
But even some of those more familiar with the challenges faced in the old building doubt the scope of the proposed one in the face of current fiscal realities. City Council member Karl Nurse has expressed reservations about the 200,000-square-foot size of the facility, which will also have a 400-car garage.
Foster said he anticipates public perception will start to change next month when he moves the issue to the top of his list with the expectation that 2012 will be a pivotal year for the project, including the hiring of an architect. And city officials say they're seeking alternative funding sources, including federal grants. That's all promising. But Foster and Harmon also need to be open to fully reassessing what is needed versus what the department may want.
Yet none of that changes that the current headquarters was built when the city was a sleepy, Southern town and the work of police officers was far different. St. Petersburg is bigger and more dynamic, and the job of its police force is dramatically different. It's time for a new headquarters.