City seeks new talks over police, fire facilities

By JONATHAN WHITAKER
August 8, 2019

Merced leaders have pushed the reset button on their ongoing process to build a new police headquarters and two new fire stations, and formulate a bond measure to help pay for it all.

The City Council on Monday night moved to set up an extended public meeting, or 3- to 4-hour study session on the matter, and hear directly from design, financial and police consultants about the scope of potential projects and alternatives.

Also, an exact location for a new police station, and what role it will play in the city’s overall public safety strategy, remains up for debate.

During discussions, City Council members also ruled out an attempt to put a $40 million general obligation bond measure to pay for the public safety facilities on the March primary ballot. Instead, they indicated the city should focus on educating the public about extending Measure C — a voter approved half-cent sales tax that continues to support public safety services, but sunsets in 2026. The salaries of 21 police officers and 13 firefighters are tied to Measure C. The council is still considering whether to put a Measure C extension on a ballot in 2020, perhaps for the November General Election.

“I think we need to worry about Measure C and get that passed,” said Councilman Kevin Blake. “If we don’t have bodies to fill these new buildings they will be useless. … We need to think it [facilities plan] though, and do it correctly. I think a lot of people have questions and suggestions.”

City staff on Monday had hoped to narrow some of the options for city consultants who are aiming to complete a draft plan and present it to the council.

Stephanie Dietz, assistant city manager, focused in on two future fire station projects with a total cost (at present market levels) of about $10.7 million. Station 54 would be relocated in the future Gateway Shopping Center in southeast Merced, and Station 56 would be located near the back end of Merced College.

She also presented size options for a new main police station, including one to handle current staffing (at a projected cost of $36.6 million to $40.6 million), and one with room to grow for a larger city population in the future ($43.1 million to $47.9 million).

The city has been eyeballing and investing in plans for a new police headquarters for well over a decade. Two properties were purchased over the years, including a site that borders Mansionette in north Merced, and the old Merced Sun-Star site on G Street.

The latter was the go-to location up through last year, but upon future study of projected costs, safety concerns and egress issues, it appears the idea has derailed.

Both properties, along with the existing Main Station on 23rd Street, do have cash value to invest in a new police headquarters. Dietz pointed out that the value of the properties total nearly $5 million.

There’s also future impact fees that could bring up to $15 million for the project, depending on the pace of future city development. She did advise leaders to not tie estimated impact fees to a bond measure which could be problematic for the General Fund going forward.

However, after Dietz finished her presentation, a discussion on the council began regarding the idea of building a police station of similar size to the existing Main Station, and then including it in a network of three substations that would cover north, south and central Merced, without the need for a larger main police headquarters. There was also a general consensus on the council to have the city’s consultants look into a “substation model” for the entire city.

Both Blake and Councilman Anthony Martinez supported the substation strategy, with Martinez favoring a substation to be built in north Merced while maintaining the existing Main Station to cover the city’s center. A substation in south Merced already exists. Martinez added that he would like to see a police presence at the planned fire station for the Gateway Shopping Center.

“We really are not talking about building a new police station,” Martinez opined. “We are really talking about how police and fire are going to be run for the next how many years to come.”

Meanwhile, Police Chief Chris Goodwin said he preferred a larger, more central Main Station where communication between management, officers and other personnel could flow in productive ways. He pointed out that patrols are already in the districts at any given shift. He also stressed that officers are often called out to the hospital in the north for medical clearances, and to the south for jail bookings.

Councilman Matthew Serratto agreed with the chief, and said he would like to see a new Main Station built in the downtown area — one that is complemented by a substation model that would address community concerns.

“It’s on us,” Serratto said. “We need to come up with a truly appealing plan for the city.”

At times on Monday night, council members sounded a bit frustrated that the overall project apparently wasn’t moving forward.

“I feel like we are kinda going back and forth, and now we are back where we were before,” said Councilwoman Jill McLeod, who supported the chief’s idea for new police headquarters.

Former Merced City Councilman, Michael Belluomini made a passionate plea for a public study session with direct talks between leaders and consultants — something, perhaps, members of the City Council were already hinting about.

“What strikes me about this is the process,” Belluomini told the council from the public comment podium. “You have hired these consultants yourself. It’s not like the city manager has hired them. Why aren’t you talking to them directly? Why is everything being funneled through one person, and that person funnels it back to them.You are paying a voter attitude consultant $100,000 to do surveys over the past couple of years. For that kind of money, they will come here and talk to you about the best things that should be on there. You are paying the architect who is doing the preliminary plan a $100,000. For that kind of money, they will come here and tell you their opinion and insight from their experience of having building a half a dozen or so police stations in the last 10 years. … And then you are talking about a $40 million general obligation bond. The bond underwriter is going to get paid about a half a million dollars to do that. And the financial planner is going to get paid like $200,000 to put that together. For that kind of money, they’ll come here directly and talk to you, and give you their expertise. You should be having some sort of study session, or workshop, where you call in these consultants, you talk about these issues in a broad, free-flowing form, and you will get information … rather than trying to guess.”

Mayor Mike Murphy agreed, and he pretty much had the last word on Monday night.

“I think the sentiment is that there hasn’t been enough sense of urgency to get this project to continue to go,” Murphy said. “We are going to proceed on our Measure C renewal, but we need to have a shovel-ready project [regarding the police and fire stations]. The more prepared you are, the luckier you will get when it comes to state and federal funding. I think we should still be doing our homework to have this project move forward, even if it’s not on the March ballot. I don’t want us to take our foot off the accelerator. We need to do the legwork ahead of time because this has been years [in the making]. I hate to say that, but that’s where we are at.”

City staff members are reviewing potential times in the coming weeks for a study session on new public safety facilities and potential bond measures. A date has not been set.

Also on Monday, the council approved a new ordinance concerning Accessory Dwelling Units, and heard from police and fire officials about results of the Safe & Sane Fireworks campaign in July.

More on this to come in upcoming editions of the Times. Stay tuned …


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