Council puts police station back on table

After voters last fall defeated a $12 million bond proposition for a new Homer Police station and a 0.65 percent seasonal sales tax to pay for it, Homer City Manager Katie Koester said, “The need for a new police station has not gone away, but the next steps are in city council’s hands and I will be looking to them for guidance.”

At a work session for the Homer City Council on Monday, council members gave Koester that guidance — if only a rough draft — and once again looked at the issue of a replacement cop shop. That and more discussions will lead to a resolution before the council in February laying out another plan to build and fund a replacement for the city’s cramped, 1980s-era Heath Street station and community jail.

An outline in the work session packet suggesting where to go next raised a key question: Why did the bond proposition fail?

The answer? Voters found the $12 million price tag too high, said council member Heath Smith.

Former Public Safety Building Committee Chair Ken Castner said before the vote that he thought the price could be dropped to $10 million or even less. The new station would have been built on the site of the Homer Educational and Recreational Complex and use the HERC for evidence storage and an indoor shooting range.

“Twelve million I felt was too high,” Smith said. “The voters felt like the $10 million that Ken went around and educated them on was too much.”

Council member Tom Stroozas agreed with Smith.

“It all goes down to what we are going to budget for this and what is the public willing to pay,” he said.

Even $10 million was too much, Stroozas said. “I wasn’t willing to support it at that level, but do know we need a new public safety building,” he added.

Another issue for the council to consider was if the HERC site and proposed design should remain the plan, or if the city should start from scratch and consider another site. Stroozas and council member Shelly Erickson suggested a build-lease option, where a private developer would build the police station and lease it to the city.

“I think that’s probably the most economical with the economy the way it is,” Stroozas said.

Smith noted that private construction costs tend to be lower than civic construction costs.

“I see some merit there. I have yet to be sold on if that is the path we should take,” he said.

Council member Donna Aderhold pointed out that a police station and community jail requires highly specialized construction.

“It’s not like building an office building and then you lease it,” she said.

Stroozas said a build-lease option would include maintenance costs the city wouldn’t have to absorb. That could be a savings, particularly if it was a fixed cost.

Or not, council member David Lewis said.

“Something to consider is the person who builds and leases it, his main goal is to make a profit,” he said.

Smith criticized the HERC site and the idea of repurposing the old building for some space. Instead of using the HERC for a gym, evidence storage and a shooting range, maybe it could be redesigned for other police station uses, Smith suggested.

Homer Police Chief Mark Robl said at the work session that using the HERC for offices or a jail would mean bringing it up to code

“We weren’t allowed to put anything in the HERC building 24-7 without upgrading it,” Robl said.

Koester said a study had been done earlier to consider the costs of bringing the HERC up to code. A 2012 study by Peter Klauder of Klauder and Associates, Anchorage, said it would cost $10 million to bring the HERC up to specs.

One feature of the new police station came under criticism: an indoor shooting range. Erickson said she had talked to local representatives with the National Rifle Association, and they said the NRA has programs to run a shooting range.

“Is that something we would be able to help fund that portion of it working together?” she asked.

Robl said he had talked to national NRA representatives, and he learned, too, that the NRA could help out with shooting ranges like on targeting systems and supplies. The NRA also has money for training. Robl said he thought that might be worth about $50,000, though.

An indoor shooting range where officers could practice regardless of weather would help in officer training, Robl said.

“What we have seen consistently over time is the best training programs turn out the best officers,” he said. “They’re the safest on the street. They’re less likely to use force, and when they do use it, they use it accurately.”

In terms of police liability, the greatest risk would be for use of force issues, Robl said.

One of the highest-profile lawsuits against the city came after the 2006 Homer Airport shooting in which wanted meth dealer Jason Anderson shot his 3-year-old son and then killed himself during a shoot out with US Marshals and Homer Police. The boy’s mother, Cheryl Dietzmann, sued US Marshals and police. The boy survived the shooting, but suffered severe brain damage. Dietzmann settled with the Marshals for $3.5 million. She sought $45 million from the city of Homer, but a federal jury rejected her claim.

At the end of the work session the council didn’t present Koester with a firm plan, but Monday’s meeting did start discussion on where to proceed next. That could mean forming a new building committee and re-examining the HERC design or starting with a new site.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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