If Gilbert wants to retain its ranking as one of the safest municipalities in America, it’ll come at a price to taxpayers – $289.4 million to be exact, according to Police Chief Michael Soelberg.
Soelberg last month presented council with six major capital projects that he said is needed for his department.
“Gilbert is a very safe community,” Soelberg said at the community investment workshop Dec. 11. “We want it to remain a very safe community…and making sure that we are making investments for the future to not only maintain but continue to improve on our safety status.”
According to the chief, crime overall in the town dropped but violent crimes are up –although the numbers are still small based on population size.
“Our violent crime is concerning,” he said. “That’s your murder, rape, aggravated assault, robberies. Those have consistently gone up for the last nine years.”
None of the projects come with a funding source. The budget director presented options, including a general obligation bond, muni bonds and a sales tax increase.
Council is expected to review a funding proposal using a combination of a sales tax increase and bonding at its spring retreat.
Advocacy center: $56.8 million
The center would house a multidisciplinary team that includes law enforcement, state Department of Child Safety, the prosecutor’s office, mental health, victim advocates and counselors working collaboratively on a case.
Crimes that will be investigated include sexual assault, sexual abuse, child abuse or neglect, strangulation, domestic violence and those involving vulnerable adults.
The center’s purpose is to save victims from having to retell their stories multiple times, further traumatizing them. Soelberg also said it will save detectives travel time from having to go to the advocacy centers in Mesa or Chandler so they can work on more cases.
He also said the center also will help increase prosecution rates.
According to the chief, domestic violence and sex crimes involving children and adults have been rising the past two years in Gilbert and the advocacy center is a key component in addressing that.
Soelberg cited two recent fatal domestic violence cases – a woman killed her husband in November and a man killed his girlfriend in October – and said, “We want to prevent circumstances like this.
“There are three other examples of domestic violence in our community all resulting in deaths.”
Soelberg said the center more than doubled in size since it was first presented in 2019 because it will now include counseling to help survivors.
The project is also broken into three phases.
The $43 million cost for Phase 1, a 26,266-square-foot building housing victim services, is already funded. Construction must begin by January 2025, according to the chief.
Phase 2 is a 34,274-square-foot building for the employees’ workspace and a wellness space. The estimated cost is $42 million.
Phase 3 calls for a 6,000-square-foot building for training and a conference space for up to 100 people who will discuss “everything from sex, domestic violence, homicide, whatnot,” Soelberg said.
Jack Gierak, capital improvement projects supervisor, explained that the center’s Phase 3 is a stand-alone project and the estimated cost includes inflation and the technology expenses. He said the cost would go down when it is incorporated with another project.
“This would not be a number to spend as we would try to find any efficiency which could be available there,” he said.
Soelberg added that a new construction was more cost-effective than remodeling an existing building or leasing one.
The project is planned on vacant town land next to the public safety building on Civic Center Drive.
Soleberg also said a garage likely will be needed but noted, “It’s not in the current budget and that is not what we’re discussing today.”
Crime lab: $81 million
Soelberg has been pushing for a crime lab for many years and painted a dire picture of safety being compromised if the town doesn’t build its own.
The department since 2012 has contracted with Mesa Police for processing of forensic evidence but the chief raised concerns that Gilbert has no control over prioritizing its cases and that Mesa could in the future decide to sever the contract.
“They could tell us tomorrow that, ‘Hey, at the end of next year you’re out’ and our only option would be to go to DPS and that is not an option,” Soelberg said.
According to Soelberg, the state police lab has an “extreme backlog” and lacks the capacity to process evidence.
“If there is a property crime and there’s DNA collected, DPS doesn’t have the time or resources to test that so we could identify somebody,” he said. “Therefore they won’t even bother looking at it.”
Additionally, he said, the contract cost with Mesa increased 25% last fiscal year.
Soelberg pointed to the town’s foresight in building the $96-million Public Safety Training Facility that opened in 2021.
“Right when we opened, Phoenix told us, ‘sorry, we don’t have the capacity to train anymore. You guys are out,’” he said
Soelberg said that an inadequate crime lab service will have consequences:
“Crime lab mistakes or errors or backlogs have resulted in additional victims being victimized, cases not being prosecuted, cases being dismissed because evidence was either lost or never tested or improperly tested. We don’t want this to happen to us.
“The crime lab is an essential piece just like the Advocacy Center to make sure we have the proper tools and resources to provide for our community.”
Soelberg recommended the town build a lab that could also serve two other police agencies at a cost of $81 million.
Apache Junction and Queen Creek have expressed an interest in contracting for forensic services but not share the construction cost.
The so-called three agency model also gives the town additional room for future growth if needed, Soelberg said.
He said there are two possible locations for the lab, a dirt lot near the property evidence warehouse and Fire Station No. 1 on Williams Field Road and vacant land at the Public Safety Complex.
If Gilbert was to build a lab for its own use the cost would be $70 million. The operational cost just for handling Gilbert cases is estimated at $3.2 million a year.
“Our intent would be to process the DNA on property crimes,” Soelberg said. “What that does is it helps you obviously to identify suspects but a lot of times these crimes that evolve into rape, robbery, home invasions, they’re starting with property crimes.
“And so by getting them arrested you’re preventing that future, more serious crime from happening.”
It would take five years to build a lab.
“Crime labs are not cheap to operate,” Soelberg said. “There’s a lot of technology that goes into that. Between the utilities and supplies, it’s an expensive process but it’s an essential process to make sure that we keep our community safe.”
Soelberg suggested bonding in 2024 for the project and pointed out that each year the town waits to go before the voters, the cost of the project cost goes up by an additional $5 million.
Soelberg said staff also looked into contracting with private and federal labs but said they were either unavailable or impractical.
A private-public partnership is not an option based on the cost either, he said, while contracting with Chandler, which is building a new lab at a cost of $38.7 million, would put the town in the same situation it is now in with Mesa, he added.
“I’m worried about the future,” the chief said. “Mesa still does a good job but my concern is as we look at the build-out of Gilbert, we look at our violent crime rate going up, I do not want to be in a situation where we are letting our citizens down.”
Public Safety Complex Expansion: $41.6 million
Central patrol and police administration have outgrown the building at the Public Safety Complex on Civic Center Drive. The number of employees working out of the central station grew 58% over 21 years to 330 now from 208, according to the chief.
“As we run out of room, we have to start moving people to different locations,” he said. “When you do that, you increase your response times.”
He alluded to studies that showed that increased response times lead to an increase in crimes, accidents and deaths.
He added that when departments fail to provide the proper resources, whether it is buildings or innovative technology, it leads to fatigued and stressed employees and police officers start to leave for other agencies.
He added that the state-of-the-art Public Safety Training Facility has been a useful recruiting tool for the department.
He said that the building needs to be expanded and remodeled to provide amenities such as more writing stations, break rooms, locker rooms, patrol areas, an employee wellness area and a real-time crime center. The estimated cost of $41.6 million has no funding source identified.
“There’s more bodies than are places to work,” Soelberg said. “So they got to find somewhere else to go or go back out in the car and do their reports.
“We’ve added storage lockers, filing cabinets everywhere we can, we’ve shoved more into there but we are out of room.”
New San Tan Police Station: $92.4 million
The San Tan Police Station in south Gilbert ran out of room three years ago but the department has turned an old office into a much-needed locker room. Currently 122 officers are assigned there.
“With this additional space, we are at capacity,” Soelberg said. “Depending on how the budget goes, there’s a plan to add more officers down there.
“We will be once again over-capacity for the locker room space. As we continue to add more bodies, we will continue to run out of room.”
He said that officers don’t have enough writing stations – currently there are four – and that they write their reports in their patrol cars, a Starbucks – wherever they can.
Public Works occupies the other half of the building so expansion is not feasible.
And because everything at the building needs to be revamped, Soelberg pitched constructing a new 45,000-square-foot station with parking for 300.
He said that the town owns a 15-acre adjacent lot and that the station could be built on 6 acres at the site.
Heritage District Police Community Office:- $18.6 million
Soelberg said that eight bicycle patrol officers and a sergeant use an office at the town’s parking garage on Vaughn Avenue but it’s too small. He said the department has plans to triple the size of the bike patrol at build-out.
He said the neighborhood office could be a place where people can make a report if their car was vandalized but it would not be a full-service station.
He proposed acquiring a building downtown that would also house volunteers to provide information to visitors. A site has not been identified, he said.
“We need more room plus the idea of having a centrally located location where the public knows to come if they were a victim or if they need information, they’re lost their kid, they want to know where to go to eat. That’s why we talked about the ability of having ambassadors in there,” he said.
He said the $18.6 million price tag is with the assumption that the town owned the land where the office would be located.
According to Soelberg, the department’s top priority was Phase 2 of the advocacy center, followed by a new San Tan Police Station. The Public Safety Building expansion was No. 3, crime lab, No. 4, Phase 3 of the advocacy center was next and lastly the community office.
“San Tan, we’re out of room, we’ve got to do something now, public safety (building) we’re out of room, we need to do something now,” Soelberg said. “Advocacy center Phase 2 is extremely important because it’s instrumental to make Phase 1 work. We’ve got a plan to get by but hopefully not more than a year.”
Councilman Jim Torgeson said that some of the projects’ costs were overwhelming and he focused on the center’s Phase 3, the downtown police office and the new police station.
He said the construction cost for the advocacy center’s last phase worked out to $2,300 a square foot.
He said that the last high school he saw get built came in at $320 a square foot and the cost of building a home is around $240 per square foot.
“You’re talking about things that are 10 times, eight times, seven times that,” Torgeson said. “It’s a lot.”
Soelberg explained that Phase 3 was a standalone project requiring the hiring of contractors and the planning and that “we think we can bring that number down significantly by merging with another project that’s going to have all those administrative costs with it.”
“Keep in mind the cost escalation of everything is going up,” the chief responded. “That’s why these numbers are so much more than what they were three years ago when we first talked to you about the majority of these.”
Torgeson also balked at the cost of a 10,000-square-foot office in the Heritage Center and asked if the chief considered other avenues.
“Have you considered some of the ghost leases in town, where people are paying leases on empty buildings (due to the) change in the workforce?” Torgeson inquired.
Soelberg responded no but that the department has a lease for building space where 30 employees were relocated due to the cramped space.
He added that the cost for the office could drop if the town incorporated it into a parking garage or a storefront.
Torgeson said that the new police station came in at $2,000 a square foot and that a police building should never be so high.
“You could buy an empty office building, you could put a 10-foot wall that’s electrified with gun turrets around for less than half of it,” he said. “If this is what is coming back to us, this cost, we need to look at different construction companies, period.
“I don’t care who’s been doing business for how long,” he continued. “Coming in with numbers this high on land we own is not acceptable.”
Mayor Brigette Peterson pointed out that building the facilities is fundamentally different from building a school or a home.
“The technology investment, especially with security concerns, needs to be significantly greater,” she said. “It’s like an apples and oranges or apple and pears at the very least in terms of comparing building costs.
“There is a very healthy estimation for cost escalation since our projects have been so significantly impacted over the past several years and that trend is starting to stabilize but it is not going back down.”
Vice Mayor Kathy Tilque asked if the projects could be phased to spread out the costs.
“There’s always the potential,” Soelberg said. “But you’re going to end up spending over the long term more money than what you would now to fix the problem, get them what they need to take care of their needs now and our future needs at full buildout.
“Yes, you could always split up one of these problems and pay for a little bit now but how far does that get you? It gets you maybe a year or two and then are we going to go get money again to do another piece?”
Councilwoman Yung Koprowski said she agreed that the advocacy center Phase 2 was a top priority and supported the crime lab.
But she wasn’t convinced with Phase 3 and, like Torgeson, questioned the cost which she called “quite excessive for 6,000 square feet of meeting space.” She wanted more information.
She also asked the chief to consider using other resources for the center’s meeting space.
She said the need for a new San Tan Police Station made sense and questioned if that could be made larger so some personnel from the Public Safety Building could be moved there, foregoing the need to expand that building.
The chief responded that it was possible.
As for the Heritage District office, Koprowski asked if the chief looked for available commercial space outside the perimeter of the district that could be repurposed versus constructing a building.
Soelberg said that staff has not looked at that option, partly because the goal is to have the office at the central core – “something that if someone’s visiting, they know to go there or if they need help, they know to go there.”
A central location also would enable bicycle cops to reach any location in the district in a short amount of time, he added.
Koprowski asked if there could be a private-public partnership with the developer of the mixed-used Heritage North development to put the police’s office there.
She said she preferred to see the proposed office integrated with some other development that’s already being planned in the district.
Soelberg said that it was possible but the decision rests with the council.
“I’m totally on board with it being mixed in with retail or offices,” he said. “I just want to make sure that it’s publicly accessible and not inconvenient, it’s easy to find whether they’re a victim or whether they just want to know where to eat.”
Peterson said she, too, was on board with the advocacy center but had “a lot of heartburn” over the crime lab project.
And, she said, she was “shocked” by the $92.4 million cost for the San Tan Police Station even with all technology built into it,when the town was able to build the 50-acre Public Safety Training Facility for a few million dollars more.
“I know construction costs have changed a lot since we finished the Public Safety Training Facility,” Peterson said. “But to build a new station on land that we own, for more than what you’re predicting the crime lab will cost…. those two shocked me.”
Councilman Chuck Bongiovanni said he agreed with his peers and also considered the cost of the new police station “excessive.”
By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor www.gilbertsunnews.com
2024-01-07 07:00:00 , www.gilbertsunnews.com – Vivrr Local Results in news of type article