City reveals more info about proposed police station

VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen at a Tuesday public information meeting at the city fire station released for the first time purchase price details of their proposed North Main Street site for a new police station, and they updated funding plans for what is estimated as a $1.75 million project.  
They told a gathering of about two-dozen residents, plus Police Chief George Merkel and several members of his department, that the chosen parcel could cost up to $259,000.
That figure includes a base purchase price, according to City Manager Mel Hawley, of  $229,000. The final cost could also include up to $11,000 more for liens against the property, and up to $19,000 for additional land the city could choose to buy to bring the parcel up to a full acre and allow a garage to be built there in the future.
The parcel is the former home of Vergennes Auto Sales, on the northwestern side of North Main Street between Kennedy Brothers and the railway underpass. Hawley said owner Brent Barry, a Williston car dealer, held the mortgage of the former property owner, who defaulted, and told city officials he just wants to be made whole in a sale.
“It’s really just the amount of money he needs to break even,” Hawley said.
Vermont Industrial Parks, a company affiliated with Middlebury’s J.P. Carrara & Sons, owns a larger parcel to the rear and right of the Vergennes Auto Sales land. Hawley said the Carraras are willing to sell the city two slivers of land to enhance the main parcel, on a $5-per-square-foot basis for a parcel with frontage and for $2 per square foot for land to the rear. If the city chooses to buy all the land, it would add $19,000 to the bottom line.
City officials said a garage is not part of their initial proposal, but the extra land could allow one to be added later.
Alderman Bill Benton addressed project funding and said annual payments on a 20-year bond would peak at $136,700 in their second year.
Benton said if $20,000 of the city’s Tower Fund were dedicated to those payments as well as another $20,000 of other revenue, the city tax rate would have to rise by about 4.5 cents to make those payments.
Benton said it was his personal preference to dedicate to police station payments $20,000 of the Tower Fund’s annual revenue of roughly $100,000. The Tower Fund is fed by payments from cellphone companies that hang equipment on the city’s former water tower.
If aldermen followed that template, Benton said that second year of bond payments would cause annual tax hikes of $66 on a $150,000 home, $88 on a $200,000 home, and $110 on a $250,000 home.
Benton, a real estate appraiser, also said later that national studies have shown that communities with strong police presences and low crime rates tend to have strong property values.
Hawley and Mayor Mike Daniels said after the meeting that aldermen have not decided how much of the Tower Fund to apply toward police station payments.
Hawley also confirmed the other revenue of which Benton spoke consisted of traffic tickets. Hawley said the department has consistently outperformed what he called “conservative budgeting of police fine revenue” during Merkel’s three-year tenure, and aldermen are considering using some of those funds for police station payments.
Vergennes aldermen agreed on Oct. 23 to adopt a 6,076-square-foot, 24-room building as a working model for a new police station.
The working plan includes an “operations” side with two rooms to interview suspects, two cells, a separate juvenile holding area, a booking area, a sally port, an armory and storage.
Merkel said that area is securely divided from the other “logistics” side, which has a separate interview room for victims and informants; men’s and women’s locker rooms; a patrol room that can accommodate 10 officers; offices for the chief, a sergeant and a detective; a fitness room; a training room; evidence storage and processing rooms; a lobby; an intake/administrative room; and records and information technology/phone system rooms.
Merkel said that separating victims and witnesses from suspects — something that is highly problematic in what is now a two-room office with a third room that is a glorified closet — would be a critical benefit to the new station; the two evidence rooms would be vital in creating a “chain of custody” that would hold up in court; that the fitness room would help keep police on the job and injury-free; and that the station would meet the city’s needs on a permanent basis.
“The last thing I want to do is go back to the city council and say I need more money for this,” Merkel said.
Hawley said on Tuesday the costs were about the same on the North Main Street land as they would be on the roughly 8-acre parcel the city already owns off New Haven Road. He said there would be much higher site development costs on the city-owned land, about $440,000 compared to a little more than $190,000 on North Main Street.
Given that New Haven Road is a more residential area and the chosen site has better visibility, Hawley said aldermen favored North Main Street.
“The council felt if it (the cost) was a wash, the North Main Street site is a better location,” he said.
Hawley told the gathering Tuesday there would also be ongoing costs once the building is built, including heating fuel, electricity, insurance, trash hauling and upkeep. He estimated those costs at about $22,000, or another penny on the tax rate.
Several present spoke in favor of the project, including representatives of WomenSafe, the Vergennes Opera House and the Vergennes Partnership.
A WomenSafe official praised the building design for separating victims from their alleged assailants, and said the extra privacy away from City Hall would make it more likely for women to come forward and seek restraining and relief-from-abuse orders.
Tara Brooks, a director of both the partnership and the opera house, said that partnership officials believe the station would add “a spark” to the North Main Street area that serves as the city’s northern gateway.
And she described the inherent problems of the theater sharing space with a police station. She said, for example, she was selling tickets to eight or 10 customers when police led two handcuffed suspects through the shared lobby, and that at times problems in the station can be heard during performances.
“What we currently have just doesn’t work,” Brooks said.
Small City Market business and building owner Corey Foote, a Weybridge resident, said he has been impressed with the city force’s professionalism.
“The investment in a facility for these officers to do their job is money well spent,” he said.
Real estate broker Lynn Jackman Donnelly praised the city’s “fantastic” schools and fire and public works departments, as well as the efforts of the police — who she believed deserved better quarters.
“Vergennes has truly become a model small city, not only for the state, but for the country,” she said. “It’s time now to support the police … All these things make our city a better city.”
Those who questioned the working proposal focused on the scale, not the necessity, of a new station. Several wondered about the fitness room, the two evidence rooms, the two holding cells, the training room, and the overall scope and size.
Daniels read an email question that asked how the department has “functioned to date” in its tiny office. Merkel responded that measures like handcuffing suspects to benches, the lack of separation of victims and suspects have made the situation, poor storage for equipment and evidence, and officers eating off desks after performing field drug tests on the same surfaces have made for less than ideal circumstances.
“It’s not safe,” he said. “It violates every principle of police work.”
Resident Ed Sears wondered about the scale of the station.
“I don’t question but we need a police station, but to me it seems an overkill,” Sears said, citing the detective’s office and the fitness and training rooms.
Merkel said Detective Jason Ouellette has been busy on many major cases, and the department has made 197 arrests in 2012 so far, 43 for felonies.
“This guy is tied up the minute he walks in the door until the minute he leaves,” Merkel said. “He needs a place to do his work.”
Merkel also said two cells are a must: “We’re arresting two, sometimes three people at a time. It’s not safe.”
Hawley said the training room is actually a multi-purpose area that will be used for a break room, cafeteria and meeting room.
“We’ve tried to keep square footage at a minimum,” Hawley said. “We tried to make rooms multi-purpose rooms wherever we could.”
Still, resident Cheryl Brinkman reminded aldermen that a Vergennes Union High School bond proposal was just defeated because of what she called public perception that it included items that were not necessities. She said some are viewing the police station the same way and suggested aldermen have a “Plan B” ready.
“There is a perception that this is a wish station, and not everything is necessary,” Brinkman said. “This has exactly the same feel to me.”
But Merkel insisted the station plan has already been “scaled back,” and he described his philosophy on the issue:
“Build it once and build it right, and don’t build it again.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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