Sometimes going backward is the best way to start moving forward. That's what happened last night at a meeting of the impressively-named City of Salem Blue Ribbon Task Force on the Police Facility.
(I'm still waiting to see a Red Ribbon or Yellow Ribbon Task Force; will its members feel inferior?)
Here's a photo of conclusions that the task force voted to approve, which will be cleaned up and formalized by the chair, T.J. Sullivan.
(1) Look at financing options to tie up piece of land as soon as possible (prior to bond)
(2) Immediately obtain an architecture firm (confirm size and function; develop preliminary design); 20 year need, 40 year life; capacity to expand; 9-1-1 to be part of police facility
(3) Location to be determined based on [what's] recommended by architect; [?] recommendation; feasibility of site
(4) As central as possible
(5) One bond measure, just police
So after almost five years of unproductive planning -- see my previous post, "City of Salem planned new police facility in backwards way" -- the task force wisely decided to basically start over.
I was the first person to make a public comment at the end of the meeting. The initial thing I said was along this line:
At your last meeting I thought that what you talked about would have been a great discussion... five years ago. I feel the same way about what you did tonight. But, hey, better late than never.
What I was getting at, but didn't have time to speak about in detail (only had two minutes), was that on their own, in September 2010, a previous Mayor and top City officials decided that a new police facility should be built at the Civic Center.
This would require paving over much of Mirror Pond and building very expensive underground parking. A University of Oregon student project that did some preliminary work on this notion was turned over to a consulting firm, which refined the ideas.
Then, in June 2013 the City of Salem embarked on an effort to sell this Civic Center proposal to the public. Who turned out to be deeply skeptical of both the cost to built a new police facility and its already-decided location.
This caused the Mayor to form the Police Facility Task Force in 2014. At first Mayor Anna Peterson tried to limit its charge to planning for a new police facility at the Civic Center. Meeting resistance, this was loosened up.
But the political game still was obvious, as I noted in a January 2015 blog post.
Well, fortunately things have changed. Task Force members Geoffrey James and Kasia Quillinan, among others, persuasively argued that alternative locations and designs needed to be considered.
So instead of ending up with "majority" and "minority" reports, which would have made the already-tough selling job for a property tax-financed police facility bond measure even more difficult, it looks to me like the powers-that-be at City Hall, along with chair T.J. Sullivan, decided to bring James and Quillinan on board by making the Task Force's final recommendations less set in stone.
The game is still afoot, though (love that phrase).
Sure, the size, design, location, and cost of a new police facility remain to be determined. As already noted, this is good news, since the previous Civic Center proposal was in a bad location, cost way too much, and was based on a design developed out of the public view with no opportunity for broad community input.
But now City officials will be tempted to revisit the mistakes of the past. The Mayor has been pressing to have City staff choose the police facility location rather than the Blue Ribbon Task Force. Bad idea.
Several sites immediately adjacent to the Civic Center reportedly are being considered -- the "Window to the West" property just west of City Hall, across Liberty Street; and the block south of the Library, which currently is occupied by several businesses.
It would be much better if the Task Force continued planning for a new police facility. Watching the meeting last night, I was impressed with how the members are able to openly, honestly, and respectfully talk about their differing viewpoints.
Though I'm still somewhat worried that the final Task Force report will tilt too much in the direction of what the Mayor originally wanted, this is less of a concern given the decisions reached at last night's meeting.
There's a new worry, though.
The Task Force seems to be giving up on the other half of the original $80 million City of Salem proposal: seismically retrofitting City Hall and the Library to withstand the "Big One" earthquake that is a matter of when, not if.
(Renovating City Hall also was part of the proposal, but in my view this is a nicety, while earthquake proofing the Civic Center is a must.)
I was surprised to hear someone on the Task Force say that it would be a tough sell to get voters to approve a bond to improve the Civic Center buildings.
In my public comment I said that I disagreed:
All you'd need to say is, we don't want children using the library and city employees dying in an earthquake. After all, a big reason for a new police facility is that the current one would be buried under several stories of City Hall rubble after a large earthquake. Well, if it is good to save the lives of police staff, why isn't it equally important to save the lives of library patrons and city employees?
Here's the thing: Task Force members are appropriately worried that a $70-$80 million bond measure would be voted down if it included funds for both a new police facility and seismic retrofitting of the Civic Center.
However, estimates to build a police facility range from about $30 million to $50 million. The lower cost would be for a smaller facility, with surface rather than underground parking, perhaps a ways from downtown, and with less "bells and whistles."
Seismic retrofitting of City Hall and the Library would cost about $15 million. So by choosing to build a lower cost police facility, a bond levy for both "public safety" projects -- new police facility, and earthquake proofing the Civic Center -- would be about $45 million.
Which is well below the $80 million of the original City of Salem proposal.
City leaders could say:
We've listened to Salem's citizens. By building a lower cost police facility with surface parking away from the Civic Center, we've lowered its cost by at least $15 million. This happens to be the cost of earthquake proofing City Hall and the Library, which will save many lives when the Big One hits. Now we're asking Salemians to pay $45 million for both projects rather than $80 million. Citizens, you're getting a good deal.
I understand the allure of building a first class police facility -- big, beautiful, monumental, right next to the Civic Center. But I don't think Salem can afford that allure, if it means many lives lost when the Library and City Hall collapse after the Big One earthquake hits.
The Police Facility Task Force needs to face this moral dilemma head-on. The decision to give up on earthquake proofing the Civic Center in favor of a single-issue police facility bond should be revisited.
Our police force is dedicated to "serve and protect." Along with firefighters, they would be the first to respond to a devastating earthquake that destroyed City Hall and the Library. They would risk their lives to save people buried in the rubble, which could include many children.
I also believe that if police officers knew that, by building a lower cost police facility away from the Civic Center that maybe wasn't ideal, but was damn sure good enough for their needs, this would save enough money to earthquake proof City Hall and the Library, they would say "Let's do it."
So... let's do it.
Budget $30 million for a new police facility and $15 million for seismically retrofitting the Civic Center. Ask voters to approve a single bond for both projects. Call it a "public safety" levy. I think it would have a good chance of passing.