Council creates new safety building committee
February 17th | Carey Restino
The Homer City Council will again take up the issue of building a new home for Homer's police department with hopes of bringing the project, at a reduced cost, back to voters again this fall.
Last fall, voters narrowly rejected a proposal to build a $12 million public safety building on the site of the HERC building at the corner of Pioneer Avenue and the Sterling Highway. The police department is currently squeezed into a 30-year-old building it has long outgrown, and its jail, which serves not only the city but the entire southern Kenai Peninsula region, is inadequate, city staff say.
Opinions vary as to why the last vote failed, but the council is considering trying to build a less expensive version of what was already proposed. It voted to form a committee to examine the project, but stalled on what parameters to set for the new group as city council members volleyed dollar figures back and forth.
The original proposal called for tasking the committee with considering a $9 million build, $1 million less than the previous committee estimated the last building would cost. But Councilmember Heath Smith brought up an example of a similar-sized community in Maryland where they are building a police station for $2.9 million for an 8,000-square-foot building, and said if the council sets a mark of $9 million as a cap, the committee will return with a $9 million project.
"I really think we need to look hard at what we need versus what we want and what we really can provide," Smith said.
Councilmember David Lewis countered, however, that in many areas of the Lower 48, county law enforcement has facilities that cover outlying areas, unlike Homer, where state troopers bring arrested individuals to the city jail.
"We don't just deal with people busted in Homer, we deal with all the people outside Homer," Lewis said. "It's comparing apples and oranges."
The council considered an amendment by Stroozas to remove the budget amount from the parameters given to the committee, but Councilmember Catriona Reynolds noted that that was what happened the first time the council looked into the public safety building. Without an upper limit on spending, the committee returned with a $35 million plan. The amendment failed.
Smith proposed lowering the cap to $6 million, which failed in a tie vote with Mayor Brian Zak voting against the amendment. A second amendment to lower the amount to $4.5 million proposed by Councilmember Tom Stroozas failed as well. Reynolds then proposed a resolution directing the committee to bring back two proposed plans, one at $6 million and one at $9 million. That amendment passed.
Others on the council suggested the committee consider leasing existing buildings to accommodate police offices and free up space in the current building. Councilmember Shelly Erickson brought to the council a proposal to move part of the police station to the Kachemak Community Center.
"If we are truly needing extra space, this is an option to get us through," Erickson said.
Police Chief Mark Robl testified, however, that given the way officers and staff work together — such as using female dispatchers to pat down female prisoners — such a split arrangement would be challenging.
"I think separating offices would present several challenges and some would be very difficult to overcome," he said.
Erickson said she had brought the idea forward as an alternative in case the city isn't able to build something immediately. She said the committee should consider lease options.
City Manager Katie Koester noted that the current deadline for the committee to return with a plan was May 30, a date that might be ambitious given the scope of work they would have to consider.
The council said, however, that if the committee is unable to meet the deadline, they could always extend it. The hope, however, was that the committee could return with a plan quickly so the council could move forward quickly enough to meet deadlines for holding a vote in October.
The previous proposed public safety building incorporated portions of the HERC building for nonessential services, such as storage space, and also included a shooting range. A seasonal sales tax of 0.65 percent would have covered the bond cost for the $12-million building, and city officials say the average taxpayer in Homer would have paid $43 a year as a result.
Zak said, following the vote to create the committee, that anyone interested in serving should contact him.