HOMER — In considering Homer Proposition 1, a proposal to borrow up to $12 million to build a new Homer Police Station, the controversy isn’t whether police need a new station.
Even opponents of Prop 1 say it’s clear the 39-year-old station needs replacement. The debate is over the cost and how to pay for it.
“I think they deserve a new facility,” said Homer City Council member Heath Smith. “I think the community can afford to provide that, but I don’t think we should have to afford what’s currently being proposed.”
“We’ve said for many, many years police and fire is neglected and we need to bring it up to speed,” said Barbara Howard, a former City Council member and a member of the Public Safety Building Committee.
Proposition 1 asks two questions:
• Shall voters approve a general obligation bond of up to $12 million to finance design and construction of a new station?
• Shall the city pay for it with a six-month, 0.65-percent sales tax increase?
If approved, the city sales tax would go up from 4.5 percent to 5.15 percent from April 1-Sept. 30. With the Kenai Peninsula Borough sales tax of 3 percent, in Homer customers pay a total sales tax of 7.5 percent. The total city and borough sales tax would be 8.15 percent under the proposed seasonal sales tax.
The Homer market basket for 2015 — the average cost of groceries for two adults and two children — is $220 a week. That 0.65-percent sales tax would add $1.43 a week for the average market basket when the food tax is charged from June 1 to Aug. 30. The city estimates that for $1,100 in taxable expenses a month, that’s $43 more a year for the six months of the special tax, or less than a dollar a week. The sales tax would go away once the bond was paid off.
Although plans are still in the conceptual stage, the current proposal would build a new station at the Homer Educational and Recreational Complex at the corner of the Sterling Highway and West Pioneer Avenue. Key to keeping the cost of the project down is incorporating the HERC into the design. About 60 percent of the 28,000-square-foot building would repurpose the HERC, mostly for evidence storage and an indoor shooting range.
On Monday, Homer Police Sgt. Lary Kuhns and Lt. Will Hutt gave the Homer News a tour of the two-story, 5,700-square-foot concrete block building. The police force has 12 full-time patrol or senior officers, two full-time jailers, one part-time jailer and eight dispatchers, with staff working in shifts.
To start, the public reception area has a few chairs, a drug-disposal box and a rack of brochures. A thick, bullet-proof glass window separates the waiting area from the jail officer and dispatcher offices. The entry looks as inviting as an IRS audit. If you’re disabled, you won’t make it past the first floor. The police station has no elevator.
Upstairs, the only large meeting area is a conference table that doubles as the station’s research library. Tucked into a corner is the evidence room, less than the size of a bedroom. Boxes and bags spill off shelves. Kuhns said some evidence dates back to the 1970s. That’s one reason police need a bigger space: new federal regulations require holding on to evidence longer, sometimes for the life of a defendant in capital cases.
“Imagine mattresses from a crime scene,” Howard said “We need those spaces.”
Strict chain of custody rules have to be followed, Kuhns noted. For example, officers put evidence into a row of storage lockers that Kuhns, the evidence room manager, can open from the inside. In a February memo to City Manager Katie Koester, Chief Mark Robl called storage space “woefully inadequate.”
Off the conference room is a forensics lab and evidence preparation room. It shares space with two big computer server towers — a need not anticipated in 1977. On a warm fall day, the building had heated up, and the air smelled of mildew. Throughout the building fans confiscated from a marijuana grow provided some air circulation.
Also upstairs is a gym with exercise machines and a locker room and shower. The new station would have more showers and locker rooms. It would use the HERC gym as an exercise area, too.
Upstairs, some sergeants, Hutt and Robl all have their own offices. Patrol officers do paperwork from cubicles downstairs in a room they share with the jail officers and a bank of videoscreens that monitor the cells. There’s an interview room upstairs, too.
It’s on the lower level that the station’s cramped situation becomes apparent. The station has four two-bunk jail cells and one single-bed cell for protective custody prisoners. Cells for men, women and juveniles all share the same corner of the building, another deficit. Under federal law, juveniles should be separated from adults and women from men. The cells also are in earshot of the rest of the building. Hutt said there have been times when prisoners have yelled obscenities at cops for hours.
The jail hallway also has an emergency door on the north side of the building prone to flooding. In heavy storms or with ice jams, water can flow under the back door and sometimes into jail cells, the jail officer watch room and the dispatch area. Sandbags next to the door stand by ready to stop flooding.
The prisoner intake entrance also has issues. When police pull up to the back door, there is no sally port, a garage with doors that can be locked so taking a prisoner out of a patrol car before entering the jail doesn’t increase the chance of escape. There’s just one door to the outside that has to be latched with a heavy bolt to keep prisoners from making a dash to freedom.
Hutt said when a space-needs study was being done, researchers noted inadequacies like the lack of a sally port.
“You just make do. We work with the space we have,” Hutt said. “You don’t realize what you don’t have.”
In the intake area, prisoners get locked with chains and cuffs to a bench on one wall. The room is small and would quickly become crowded with a mass arrest.
A prisoner visiting area also has safety concerns. It’s down the hallway and past an exit door. There’s only one area, with a partition separating the prisoner from visitors. The new building would have a meeting area for lawyers and another for family.
The dispatch office is another of the crowded areas. Two dispatchers on duty share a room filled with monitors that show city maps. The new building would have space for up to eight dispatchers at a time — anticipating a future need. Dispatchers cover calls for police, fire and medics in the city.
Dispatchers also answer visits to the front desk. The front desk isn’t visible from inside, though. To get to the front desk staff walk past a downstairs break room.
The new station would have a bigger public lobby closer to dispatchers. “Soft” interview rooms for crime victims or for officers to meet with the public would be off the lobby as well as more secure interviews for lawyers and family to visit with prisoners.
Smith has been a frequent critic of the proposed bond and $12 million price tag. He said he will vote against Proposition 1.
“The reason why?” Smith said. “I think there are too many components of the project that don’t reflect or acknowledge where we are at economically.”
Smith said features like the firing range or large evidence storage space — the chief use of the HERC — are unnecessary. It’s not just the cost of construction, but also increased maintenance costs that will come on top of it. The city already has been struggling to fund its budget as it is, he said.
Ken Castner, chair of the Public Safety Building Committee, has said he thinks the project can come in at $11 million or even $9.5 million. Construction could be done for $7.5 million, but large civic projects have add-on costs like design costs and contingencies.
Smith said rather than approve an “up to” amount of $12 million, he’d rather give the city a lower number.
“If we have to reboot the project, I would like to put something on the table,” he said. “I would like to give them the challenge of saying, hey, here’s $7.5 million. See what you can build.”
Howard said the project already has been whittled down, from a $30 million fire and police station combined project to a $13 million project that set aside $1 million in upgrades to the current fire hall and new police station. She said she thinks the proposition will pass.
“I’m pretty confident that the citizens, as wise as they are, they will trust their leaders that this is needed, and we’ve done our due diligence to bring this down to the most cost-effective, efficient facility that is possible.”
• Michael Armstrong is a reporter for Homer News and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.