'Not a way to run a police department': Belleville considers new cop shop

News-DemocratAugust 17, 2013 

Belleville Police Chief Bill Clay in a 2010 file photo.

ZIA NIZAMI/BND

— The Belleville Police Department has insufficient parking, no wheelchair accessibility and an unfortunate placement of holding facilities above the dispatch center.

These are reasons why Belleville Police Chief Bill Clay believes the police buildings are inadequate.

On Monday, the City Council will consider a $96,247 contract with the Lawrence Group for a public building feasibility study.

The council meeting is at 7 p.m. at City Hall.

If the council approves the contract, then the firm will study the current conditions of the Police Department and City Hall buildings and propose recommendations by January.

The St. Louis-based firm would study various options, such as whether City Hall should be renovated, a new Police Department should be built or if it makes sense to move some departments to another existing downtown site.

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert said City Hall is in need of major improvements and the city staff has outgrown the space.

"The footprint hasn't changed here in years and yet the departments have grown," Eckert said.

City Hall at 101 S. Illinois St. is home to some police staff and about 35 city employees of the mayor's, city clerk's and treasurer's offices as well as finance and economic development departments.

The city's engineering, housing, sewer, human resource, and parks and recreation departments are all in separate buildings outside City Hall.

Police staff is spread out across four buildings.

Clay and other police administrators are in a building behind City Hall. When the Police Department first occupied the police annex in 1957, the city had 40 officers, Clay said. Now the department has 107 employees -- 82 sworn officers and 25 civilian staff.

The police annex is closed to the public because it is not accessible to anyone in a wheelchair, Clay said. To have larger meetings with staff or the public, Clay often uses facilities at the Fire Department on South Illinois Street or another location.

Another issue is that the holding cells are directly above the police communications center and the desk of the police commander on duty. There have been cases where people in the holding cells have flooded the cell and the leaking water would damage computer equipment on the floor below.

"This is not a way to run a police department," Clay said.

Whichever department moves, Eckert said "some downtown location to me is the only smart way to fly."

The Police Department needs to be near the St. Clair County Building for easy access to the courthouse and the St. Clair County Jail.

When city officials discussed a feasibility study last year, Ward 2 Alderwoman Melinda Hult questioned whether the study should include both the Police Department and City Hall, and whether the projects could be separated.

Eckert has said that the Police Department buildings and City Hall have to be evaluated as a whole because the buildings are intertwined.

Eckert said this week it's unlikely though that both City Hall and the Police Department would move from their current locations.

"Something's going to stay here," Eckert said. "We own the property. It's a good location."

Eckert said renovations to City Hall are necessary regardless of which departments stay in the building. For example, City Hall has a ramp at its entrance, but someone in a wheelchair would first have to go from the parking lot, around the building and navigate through a revolving door.

The city will use tax increment financing money to make the projects work.

The 2013-14 budget includes $75,000 from TIF Fund No. 3 for the feasibility study.

The contract with the Lawrence Group is over budget, but Finance Director Jamie Maitret said other projects have come in lower than budgeted, so there should be enough money in TIF Fund No. 3 to cover the difference.

Upon completion of any study, the council would have to make additional decisions to pay to implement the findings.

Eckert said the city did not know during budget reviews the scope of the work needed for a feasibility study that includes off-site locations and special considerations such as a jail and 911 center.

The BND filed a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of the proposed contract with the Lawrence Group and on Saturday City Attorney Garrett Hoerner released the proposed contract but he redacted specific sites the city might move to or buy. He noted that real estate purchase negotiations are exempt from the state's disclosure law.

Eckert said the proposed contractor will not study the Meredith Memorial Home catty-corner from City Hall at 16 S. Illinois St. as an option for the Police Department.

The Meredith Home is not big enough and the building has asbestos, electrical and plumbing issues, Eckert said. And, the existing eight parking spots at the site is an issue for any developer, much less a Police Department with 45 police cars.

There is also not enough distance between the street and former senior citizens home, which poses a security risk for a government agency, Eckert said.

The city purchased the Meredith Home in 2010 from the Catholic Diocese of Belleville. The city is currently accepting bids to demolish the building and remove the asbestos.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDBelleville.

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