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A-Team Stumps for New Cop Shop

The new police headquarters project includes a parking deck, as well as upgrades to downtown’s public works and utility infrastructure. Voters are being asked to OK $10 million in new property taxes over 20 years to help pay for the work.

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The proposed police headquarters, viewed from Center Street

NORTHAMPTON —  The city’s heavy hitters are going to bat for a new police facility here, urging voters on Nov. 2 to vote “Yes” on Question 4 to raise $10 million in taxes over 20 years to help fund the $17.6 million project.

The mayor, police chief and a host of city councilors and web-savvy civic leaders are on the campaign trail. They are holding public forums around the city, maintaining websites and a Facebook group, and talking up the project at public meetings.

Audio: Police Station in Finance Committee, July 2010: Mayor, Finance Director, Councilors, Police Chief; Detailed Discussion; One Hour Long.

The proposed three-story, 31,500 square-foot LEED-certified police facility would be located on Center Street next to the current 12,000 square-foot station, which was built in 1965. Public works improvements in the form of neighborhood stormwater and sewer system upgrades are part of the package; a new 136-space,  two-story parking deck would replace the current 30-car parking lot, adding 55 new spaces for the public.

City Councilors David Narkewicz, Pamela Schwartz, Maureen Carney, Paul Spector, Marianne LaBarge, David Murphy, and Jesse Adams all have expressed support for the new cop shop. Others on board include City Finance Director Christopher Pile, who’s developed financial projections on the 20-year cost of borrowing; Robert Ostberg, a private financial advisor who co-chairs the Police Station Building Committee; and Police Chief Russell Sienkiewicz himself, who has been pitching the new station every chance he gets — at City Council meetings, public forums, and ward-level gatherings.  He’s arranged tours of the current station for the media, and has produced a web page in-house on “the need for a new police facility.

Last Wednesday night, YES Northampton sponsored a public information session at the John F. Kennedy Middle School where Higgins, Ostberg, and Sienkiewicz made their case for the new police station, then answered questions from the audience.

Sienkiewicz kicked things off, pacing in a tight figure eight as he addressed the audience of about 40.

The current police station on Center Street was built during the Johnson administration, he said, and was designed for 30 employees; the station now houses 70 employees. The building has not aged well, he said — the basement floods, the ventilation system doesn’t work, and there’s mold throughout the workplace.

Over the past 45 years, a lot has changed in the field of policing, the chief said, particularly in the area of forensics and computer-aided investigation. He cited the current station’s lack of dry storage for equipment, case files and evidence, which can include drugs, firearms and bodily fluids. There is no good place to conduct investigative work at the station, he said. And handling arrests can be difficult, particularly on nights when there is a lot of activity, because of the tiny booking room and inadequate detention space. What’s more, Sienkiewicz said, suspects often can’t be sound-and-sight separated from each other during questioning.

The largest meeting room at the station only holds five people, Sienkiewicz said, adding that this shortcoming made for difficult police work on two recent occasions: during the investigation of the arson fires of December 27, 2009, and in the aftermath of a meth lab bust on Bridge Street earlier this month.

Sienkiewicz: Multiple Arrests and a Meth Lab

Sienkiewicz: No Room to Conduct  Arson Investigation

Higgins presented a history of the city’s attempts over the past 16 years to get a new police facility built. In 1994, she said, the City Council approved buying the James House on Masonic Street for a new station, but that former Heritage Bank building was instead leased to the Hampshire County Juvenile Court. In 1995, the idea of a joint police-fire facility was explored, but was rejected because it was too costly to build such a large complex downtown. A police facility needs assessment was funded in 2003, and the city’s Capital Improvements Committee recommended funding the project in 2006. In ’07, the council funded the design/build process; the project went out to bid; the architectural drawings were completed and permits obtained  — the project was ready to go. But when the national economic downturn hit the city’s budget hard that year, the project was dropped and the bids were released.

In July of 2010, upon the recommendation of the mayor, the City Council decided to give it another try and voted unanimously to put the debt-exclusion question on the Nov. 2 ballot. (See story posted on July 13)

Higgins said she met with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal to try to land some federal stimulus money for the project, to no avail. “You couldn’t get stimulus money for a police station,” she told the JFK audience. “You could get stimulus money for horizontal construction, such as roads. A lot of pavement projects got done with stimulus money, but not a lot of buildings.”

Higgins: No Stimulus Money for Police Stations

While Higgins spoke, City Council President Narkewicz sat in the shadows with his laptop, advancing PowerPoint slides illustrating facts and figures about the city’s capital spending and debt management over the past eight years. Higgins said that payments on city borrowing for two schools and a fire station are almost done, and that there will be enough space under the city’s debt ceiling in 2014 to fund $8 million of the project through regular borrowing.

The project will be contracted using a model called “Construction Manager at Risk,” where a guaranteed maximum price is negotiated, so as to prevent any cost overruns, said the mayor. She said that the average homeowner would pay about $80 during 2014 and that that number would decline on a yearly basis until the bond is paid off.

Higgins on Cost to Homeowners

When Ostberg’s turn came up, he explained that, despite the sagging economy, going forward on the project now makes more sense financially than trying to squeeze a few more years out of the current headquarters, which will need to be replaced anyway.

Ostberg: Commodity and Labor Costs Low
Ostberg: The Best of Times

The ceiling over the evidence storage room show signs of water damage

Now is an auspicious time to launch a municipal project, Ostberg said, since interest rates, labor rates and commodity prices are at all-time lows. Every one-point hike in interest, he said, would add an additional $1.9 million to the cost.

Ostberg also said that if the city waits for another two years, the city would have to start the permitting process over again. As it is, the architecture and engineering has all been done, and Planning Board approval has been secured. Stalling would amount to throwing good money after bad — the current station needs costly repairs and maintenance at an expected rate of $1-3 million a year, said Ostberg.

And construction bids this time may come in below the $17.6 million estimate because of today’s competitive climate — “Contractors are hungry for work,” Ostberg said.

Ostberg: Good Money After bad

After the formal presentation and question-and-answer period, Higgins, Ostberg, Narkewicz, Sienkiewicz and his two top brass, Captains Scott Savino and Joseph Koncas, stuck around for a while to speak with the audience, which appeared to be supportive. Nobody spoke out against the police station project or Question 4 on Wednesday night.

Opposition mostly anonymous

While citizens in favor of the police facility have been publicly visible, organized opposition is notably absent, save for a few anonymous posters on MassLive’s Northampton Forum and the occasional speaker at the City Council’s public comment session. How this will play out on election day is anybody’s guess: Ward 7 councilor Eugene Tacy has predicted that the battle for votes will be “brutal.”

The two city councilors who have not publicly endorsed the police station override — Tacy and Ward 3′s Angela Plassmann — have not gone so far as to urge its defeat.

Plassmann, who sits on the city’s Public Safety Committee, was absent during that body’s September attempt to endorse a new facility, and abstained when the vote finally took place earlier this month. At-Large councilor Jesse Adams had insisted that no committee vote take place without the presence of all four members. Plassmann, an outspoken advocate for law and order — and an equally outspoken advocate for low property taxes — has issued no public statements regarding her position on the override.

Ward 7 Councilor Eugene Tacy has said that "even another $5 dollars a month" would be too much for some homeowners in his ward to help pay for a new police facility

And at last Thursday’s City Council meeting, Tacy said he would probably vote for the new police station at the ballot box, but that he would not advise his constituents how to vote or campaign for the project. Tacy said that many people in the city are struggling financially, and that increased property taxes would be a burden to them. He said would not take a public position until “after the Ward 7 forum.”

Meanwhile, two informational events on the proposed police facility are scheduled this week, both at 7 p.m.: on Monday, Oct. 25,  at the Bridge Street School, sponsored by the Ward 3 and Ward 4 Neighborhood Associations; and on Tuesday, Oct. 26, at the Florence Civic Center, 90 Park St., sponsored by the Florence Business & Civic Association.

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Mary Serreze can be reached at mserreze@northamptonmedia.com
Audio recordings by Mary Serreze
© Northampton Media 2010

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