• Next public safety building committee meeting 5:30 p.m., Aug. 26 at City Hall
by Naomi Klouda
Costs for a new public safety building combining police and fire departments rose to more than $20 million in current estimates as a local committee tries to grapple with the question: What will Homer’s needs be in 20 years?
The “first in 1,000 steps to come” is underway as the Homer Public Safety Building Committee met Thursday evening to hear from USKH consultants. Fire Chief Bob Painter described this first step as the beginning of a four-to-five year process for obtaining a new structure to replace buildings currently in use.
Safety and efficiency are both lacking in the current police station, officials and officers have told the city. A new structure is the City of Homer’s No. 1 capital project priority. Officer Stacy Luck described the problematic station this way in the city campaign:
“If there’s one thing we want the public to know, it’s that our current facility is impacting our efficiency,” Luck explained. “The facility is so cramped, it’s hard to move through and get what you need. We want the public to get their money’s worth and have us out on the streets, not stuck in an inefficient, cramped building.”
Police Chief Mark Robl brought severe emergency radio transmission issues to the city’s attention.
“Our critical radio and computer equipment is not in climate-controlled rooms, which we believe has caused premature failure of some of this very expensive equipment,” Robl said. “It’s also suspected of causing intermittent system failures and outages.”
Meanwhile, at the fire department building, firefighter exposure to daily diesel exhaust is just one problem Chief Painter has pointed out.
“The U.S. EPA has reported that long-term exposure to diesel engine exhaust is linked to lung cancer,” Painter said. “Homer firefighters are exposed to these conditions daily when starting apparatus indoors for service calls.”
Thursday’s meeting focused on the possibility of phase building. If the city pays as it goes, some parts can be constructed first, with other parts of the building added later. A new jail and dispatch center, for example, are seen as the most pressing needs for solutions now. But the piecemeal concept doesn’t sit well with the people who will have to live with the results, Painter said.
“It’s a bigger pill to swallow, (a $20 million structure), but it is the most economical way,” he said. “If we add on in cost phases, down the road, you never know if you will end up with a substandard structure.”
Decisions for USKH consultants relate to how big the new public safety building should be, looking toward 2034 space needs. Consultant Dale Smythe told the committee he has focused on tours of buildings and interviews with stakeholders to help determine a conceptual design.
A series of future open houses will allow for public input, but Committee Chair Ken Castner said more public input is needed in the decision-making process. The next meeting is at 5:30 p.m on Aug. 26, and held at Homer City Hall.
“When the city council put together this committee, they thought this would be a $15 million project,” Castner said. “We’re at $21 million; this is a quantum change. We need to talk about this and let it settle in a little bit.”
Since the city is still in the beginning stages, a site hasn’t yet been selected for building the desired new structure. After rejecting several land sites on the basis of expense for purchase, installing utilities and inadequate road access for emergency vehicles, the committee is now focused on these three options:
• The HERC: The city owns the Homer Educational Recreational Center land off the Sterling Highway and Pioneer Avenue outright. But the public-use gym has generated opposition. Police and fire officials say it’s the best location for safe highway access in emergency situations.
• Alaska Wildberry building and land on Pioneer, near the fire department building: This land would need to be purchased by the City, and the current buildings would need to be removed or demolished.
• Kenai Peninsula Borough maintenance lot: Just east of the fire department on Pioneer, the lot is adjacent to existing city-owned land on which fire and police stations operate. The land would need to be purchased, and negotiations with the borough have not yet begun.
Castner wants “the process to mature a little bit and see what (Wildberry land owners) have to say in the report,” he said. “We were looking at a $15 million project, and were hoping to do the building for $12.5 million; that’s the only angst I have at this point.”
There’s no question that needs have long gone unmet in the present public safety structures.
“It’s more a matter of how are we going to cobble something together that we can afford?” Castner said.
The phase-building advantage would break the project into parts to control costs, Smythe told the committee.
The priority for the phase concept would need to be determined by Chiefs Robl and Painter, Castner said. “We have rat-trapped ourselves out,” so there are no reasonable ways to expand those facilities as they exist now.
For public information and the ability to solicit comments, the committee is preparing a Power Point presentation to be shown to movie-goers at the Homer Theatre.
The budget for consulting and other work now is coming from $300,000 in public works funding, noted Public Works Director Carey Meyer, who was asked by the committee about available funds.
Open houses are to be scheduled later this fall, prior to submitting a budget request to the Alaska Legislature. An exhibit explaining the state of current conditions at the police and fire stations is available for public viewing at the Homer Public Library.
The Building Committee comprises Mayor Beth Wythe, Chiefs Painter and Robl, Ralph Crane and Castner.
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