Regrettably, the Merced City Council decided not to place a tax measure on the November ballot to raise funds to build a new police station. This was the result of city staff failing to follow council direction to prepare a timely plan to build it.
As citizens of Merced, you deserve to know how this happened and how it hurts you and the city.
We need a new police station. The current station was built 55 years ago with a second story was added in 1980. It’s small with cramped spaces for detectives, managers, briefing rooms, lockers, interview rooms, the dispatch center and places to store records, weapons and evidence. Most say the working conditions are deplorable.
A good working environment is important to attracting and retaining police officers. Of the 97 positions for sworn officers, at least six are continually unfilled. Having fewer officers, and fewer experienced officers, reduces our safety.
The cost of building a new station has increased by roughly 4 percent per year since 2013, from $500 per square foot to $600. The new station is estimated to cost $32 million in bond funding and each year of delay adds $1.28 million. With raise interest rates expected to rise 1 percent over the coming year, the city will have to pay more to service any bonds sold to build the new station.
In July 2015, the council directed staff to analyze five locations for a new station. The following October, staff reported it had studied 11 sites, and recommended the Sun-Star site because of its central location, 5-acre lot and the low cost of converting an existing building into a police station. On April 4, 2016, the council approved the appraisal and purchase of the site.
In addition, the council approved the appraisal of the 4.5 acre city-owned site for a new station on Yosemite Avenue at Mansionette near the Raley’s market. The council was clear about its two goals: find a more central site and make the city-owned site available for commercial development. Such appraisals should take four months.
In August 2016, I presented a 16-step schedule to prepare a design and financing plan for the new station leading to measure for the November 2018 ballot.
At the June 5, 2017 council meeting, the site on Yosemite was changed from police station to neighborhood commercial. At the same meeting the council called building a new police station a “very high priority.”
Fifteen months after council direction, on Aug. 7, 2017 the city purchased the Sun-Star building for $1.62 million and rented it back to the newspaper. On Aug. 21, the city manager said building the new police station is the most important project staff is working on. A public survey conducted in October 2017 found 68 percent of voters supported it.
Council emphasized that a direct mailer to educate the public on the reasons we need a new police station was needed in early 2018. But two mailers sent in 2018 failed to mention the reasons the police station needs replacing. I asked the council to appoint a subcommittee to meet the voter attitude consultant to review the next mailer to ensure the need for a new police station was explained. Council declined.
No architect was hired to provide a needs assessment, preliminary design and a cost estimate, as had been recommended. In late June, another voter attitude survey asked voters if they would vote for a $45 million bond and for a parcel tax of $68 per $100,000 of assessed value (about $3 million annually) for 30 years to upgrade police, fire and emergency operations. If there had been more discussion, and better planning, the wording could have been for a lesser tax – perhaps $45 per $100,000. With a $68 parcel tax, without explaining reasons a new station is needed, voter support fell to 61 percent – well below the 68 percent needed for approval.
A majority of the council agreed to postpone placing the measure on the ballot until finding an architect to do a needs assessment, preliminary design and a good cost estimate. Staff indicated one task for the architect will be to reassess the possible sites for the new station. As a result of engineering studies, council has decided to demolish the Sun-Star building and build a new station.
Regarding council’s clear direction to sell the 4.5 acres at Yosemite and Mansionette avenues for commercial development, the staff decided – without council agreement – that the site should be retained as a possible part of a public-private venture to build the police station.
I thought you needed to know.
Michael Belluomini, is a member of the Merced City Council.