Like Topsy, a new police facility here in Salem, Oregon just keeps on growing.
When it was first proposed by Mayor Anna Peterson and her staff, a 75,000 square foot replacement for the current 48,000 sq. ft. police department was in the works. Now, consultants have recommended a 148,000 sq. ft. facility -- almost twice as large.
I don't want to get much into the tangled web of how planning for this new police facility has unfolded over the past five years. For the next few weeks, you can read all about it on this Salem Community Vision web page. (Soon SCV will have a a new web site.)
The bottom line is that planning has been unduly secretive, disjointed, and backwards.
By "backwards," I mean that a Civic Center site for a new police facility was chosen by City of Salem officials very early on, and with essentially zero public input.
Only after plans were revealed for a 75,000 facility that would be built on (and over) Mirror Pond, just north of City Hall, were community meetings held.
Concerned citizens made valid criticisms. For example, a Civic Center site would require very expensive underground parking. Cramming a three story building onto the small Mirror Pond area would uglify the Pringle Creek walkway that eventually will lead to Riverfront Park.
So a task force was set up to hopefully get the police facility planning process on track. After a bunch of meetings the task force did make some progress, though not a whole lot.
Now the police facility planning ball is in the court of a City Council subcommittee, which is working with consultants from the DLR Group and CB Two Architects. A few days ago some folks from Salem Community Vision attended the first meeting of the subcommittee. (I'm a member of the SCV steering committee.)
You can read their reports of what went on here, here, and here. And you can peruse the handouts given to the subcommittee via this PDF file.
Download Salem Police Facility Preliminary Findings Study
There's a lot not to like. It looks like mistakes of the past continue to be repeated. Here's my personal take on what's going on.
(1) Salem can't afford a Police Palace. A few weeks ago Salem voters said "no" to a payroll tax that would have raised $5 million a year to improve our woefully inadequate Cherriots bus system. Salem is the only city of its size in the Northwest lacking evening and weekend bus service.
There are many other unmet needs in this town.
Yet City officials seem to be on their way to asking citizens to pay way too much for a new police facility. The price tag could be in the $80 million neighborhood. Eugene, which has a police department about the same size as Salem's, recently spent just $17 million for a new police facility.
Yet reportedly cost wasn't even mentioned at the first council subcommittee meeting. No questions were asked about how much a 148,000 sq. ft. building would cost. (To visualize its size, the Courthouse Square building in downtown Salem is 163,000 sq. ft.)
(2) Crime rates are down, but this seemingly isn't being taken into account. I'm not a Carly Fiorina fan, to put it mildly. But this Republican presidential candidate made some reasonable points when she called for a "zero based budgeting" approach to federal programs during a debate.
Why not do the same for Salem's police facility planning?
So far planning has gone along a more of the same trajectory. The consultants appear to be assuming that the same number of square feet per officer will be needed in the future. And that the need for police officers will be the same, or even greater, thirty years from now.
This is a photo taken at the recent City Council subcommittee meeting. At the bottom you can see that the current number of police officers per 1000 Salem residents is estimated to be 1.16. Thirty years from now, in 2045, the number of police officers per 1000 residents is shown as 1.23.
Huh? Both property and violent crime rates have dropped a lot over the past twenty years. Why should it be assumed that Salem will need the same number of police officers per 1000 residents thirty years in the future?
Further, population projections are guesstimates. So the supposed requirement for a 148,000 sq. ft. police facility is based on two highly questionable assumptions: that Salem's population will grow at a certain rate over the next three decades, and that the per capita need for police officers won't change during that time.
Along this line, I found the Square Foot/Officer slide (see the above-linked PDF file) to be more than a little strange. First, Salem's police officers aren't hanging out in the police department building all the time. Most of them are out on patrol. As Chief Jerry Moore likes to say, every patrol car is a mobile police station.
So justifying the size of a police facility by the number of officers seems dubious. Sure, the size of locker rooms and maybe evidence rooms would need to take the number of officers into account. But otherwise, a police department isn't like an office building where each employee requires a certain amount of space.
Second, I was struck by how the consultants showed "Salem Proposed" by dividing the square footage of the new building by the future number of police officers in 2045 -- whereas the other cities show the current number of officers.
In other words, the 148,000 sq. ft. size of the new facility here in Salem looks reasonable only because the consultants showed "Proposed" with the 260 officers projected for 2045, not the 187 officers Salem has today.
If 148,000 sq. ft. is divided by the current 187 officer size of the force (to make square foot per officer comparable to the other cities), we get 791 sq. ft. per officer -- which puts Salem very close to the upper end of the International Association of Police Chiefs standard.
(3) Make the police facility expandable in the future, not super-sized now. Given the inherent uncertainty about what the future will bring, it seems crazy to spend tens of millions of dollars on building a police facility that is way larger than what is needed now -- and has a good chance of being way larger than what will be needed in 2045.
It seems smarter to allow for possible expansion in the future. I can't imagine a private company basing its construction plans not on current employment, but on how many employees they expect to have thirty years from now.
Look, I'm a progressive.
I don't resonate strongly with the whole "make government run like a business" thing. But I resonate with this notion to some extent. In the private sector, it is recognized that markets, customers, demand, competition, and such are continually changing.
Straight line projections like the City Council subcommittee got at its first meeting would be laughed at by a corporate board of directors. Yet from what I've heard, the council members in attendance accepted what the consultants presented without asking any probing or critical questions.
Sure, we always will need some sort of police department. But policing/public safety/crime rates have changed a lot in the past, and they will change a lot in the future. The subcommittee needs to take this obvious fact into account.
In summary, from what I've seen so far, Salem voters would be justified in saying "No" to a ballot measure that asks for money to build a 148,000 sq. ft. police facility.
Geez, City Hall and the Library are going to collapse when the Big One earthquake hits, which is a matter of "when" not "if." It makes much more sense to fund essential seismic retrofitting of the Civic Center rather than waste tens of millions on an unduly expensive Police Palace.
Like I said back in May, "Salem can't afford a $50 million-plus Police Facility." And that now is an underestimate, given how much larger Topsy (a good nickname for it) has grown since then.