• Deteriorating conditions at old city jail noticed by DOC
By Naomi Klouda
Homer’s police station suffers a lack of space – no crisis cells for needy inmates, no room for evidence processing or storage, no place to put offending juveniles.
The fire department also outgrew its station, dating back to the early 1980s when Homer’s population counted fewer needs. A time when medical technology and bio-hazard decontamination weren’t the big issues of today, according to a funding request the city of Homer is drafting.
But a new combined facility is on the planning table that got the Homer City Council excited at its Monday work session. The estimated $15 million structure would house both fire and police, extending their working space to double the 6,200 square feet each work in today.
City Economic Development Coordinator Katie Koester told the council of the preliminary plans as part of this year’s top funding requests soon to go before Gov. Sean Parnell.
“One thing we are going to ask you tonight is to give some commitment to the idea,” City Manager Walt Wrede told the council. Between now and January, preliminary questions will need to be answered: Where will it be located? How much money could the city contribute?
Parnell, on a trip to Homer to host an annual community picnic this summer, spent time visiting with city officials. The Department of Corrections “has indicated they want to see a new jail here,” Wrede said. The funding for state jails and prisons comes through the governor’s budget. “I feel we have the governor’s support.”
Councilmen Bryan Zak and David Lewis urged the city to press forward. “A new administration might be in (office) after this. They might not be as supportive of public safety,” Lewis said.
Fixing on a site is one of the first steps ahead for a council decision.
Police Chief Mark Robl and Fire Chief Bob Painter, working with Koester to flesh out the plan, say they see two strong sites that would serve their needs.
The city owns a section of land on the corner of the Sterling Bypass and Pioneer Avenue now occupied by the often-discussed Homer Educational Recreation Center. Tearing the 1950s-era former school down would rid the city of a “white elephant,” Zak said.
The second site favored by Robl and Painter builds on securing an area of town increasingly scrutinized these days after a 61-year-old man was found killed there this summer. Mark Mathews was found dead July 28 in what is referred to as the Town Center, on the Poopdeck Trail. The area stretching from the Homer Library trails to wooded lands owned by CIRI form a place where for years the summer’s homeless camp, teens party and nearby property owners plead for police help.
Putting the public safety building in that area – where the city once held elaborate plans for a new city hall-town center – “spurs development and cleans it up,” Robl said.
Painter likes the fire department’s current location on Pioneer Avenue. “But you can’t destroy one building while building another on the same site,” and still provide fire service. He also wouldn’t want a location that puts the fire trucks outside its five-mile radius. That would cause disadvantage to the city’s fire-response ISO rating and slow response times.
Both agencies argue a joint public safety building will benefit the entire Homer area. Police provide 911 services for many of the communities on the Southern Kenai Peninsula and area-wide dispatching to support other agencies. The U.S. Coast Guard and Alaska State Parks could also use the training facilities.
The discussion on what to prioritize in this year’s legislative funding request linked the jail-fire complex to yet another project the city has worked on for several years: getting roads into the town center area. The access routes to the town center need to include extending Bartlett Street, upgrading Waddell Way and paving a new corridor, Koester explained. Called the East to West Transportation Corridor, this would provide alternatives to the traffic snarls that often plague the main roads of Pioneer Avenue, Sterling Bypass and Lake Street.
Discussions centered on the two as separate funding requests from different granting agencies, but link well in opening a prime area of Homer for a town center and new economic development, the council decided.
Mayor Beth Wythe said the city has matching funds and resources to help convince legislators of the new public safety building’s feasibly.
“We own the land already in both cases. At minimum, we can add in $280,000, cash on hand. So I don’t think we are without advantages,” she told the council.
Another asset is the land where the current police and fire department buildings reside. Valued at $2.4 million, selling it adds to the pot of the city’s contribution.
In a short space of time, the city and council will need to assemble their information for a legislative pitch in January. Koester asked the council to clarify their requests for public residents to comment on Sept. 9.
“The nature of the roads request changes according to where the new public safety building is to be placed,” Koester said. At the Sept. 9 work session, the discussion will be dedicated to selecting the site.
Bundling the road projects together for the East to West transportation corridor fits in with the infrastructure needed for the new public safety building, if the town center is selected as the new site. If the HERC site is selected, there may be other traffic concerns, she added.
Koester said it would involve a city-state split for funding the project. The city’s Homer Area Roads and Trails fund has $5.5 million to contribute to these road projects.
Councilman Lewis asked, “what if we get the roads before the public safety funding? Do we have to worry about the whole juggling act?”
Mayor Wythe said she anticipates phases to each project that comes not in a single allocation but multi-years beginning with design and engineering funding.
The draft top five funding requests to go the legislature for 2015 list out:
Water storage/distribution improvements
Public Safety Building
Harbor Sheet Pile Loading Dock
Fire Department equipment updates
East West Transportation Corridor.
The council will vote on the list at its next meeting Sept. 9
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