Highland News Leader

Council approves new public safety tax, but still has no plan on how to spend it

The Square in Highland.
The Square in Highland. mbraa@bnd.com

The city of Highland will begin collecting a new  1/2 -cent sales tax in July of 2018 to pay for upgrades to its public safety facilities. However, what those improvements will look like has yet to be decided.

During its meeting Nov. 6, the Highland City Council unanimously approved three new business district areas within the city, with new sales tax attached to them.

“I am optimistic about our ability to address our public safety concerns given the council’s vote last night,” said Police Chief Terry Bell. “I know it was a difficult decision and one that was not easily made by them.”

For the past several months, the council has been deliberating whether or not to create three new business districts in the city. Within those areas, the city could have implemented an additional sales tax of up to 1 percent for the next 23 years, without voter approval, in order to pay for needs of the police, fire and EMS departments.

If the city would have levied the full 1 percent sales tax, it was estimated it could have brought an extra $1 million a year into the city’s coffers. However, the city’s original plan to create a new public safety building that would encompass all three departments was deemed to be too expensive, even with $1 million a year in new revenue.

The city also received push-back from some retail businesses in town that said an extra 1 percent sales tax would put them at a competitive disadvantage — not only from neighboring communities with lower taxes, but online retailers, who have been putting the squeeze on brick-and-mortar stores across the country.

Councilwoman Peggy Bellm said she was in favor of the new  1/2 -cent tax that will be added to the cost of most retail goods, with the exceptions of groceries, medicine and automobiles.

“Any less and I’m afraid we wouldn’t be able to do what we need to do,” she said.

Councilman Neil Nicolaides said that he would have rather put the issue up for a public vote.

“I’m not happy with not doing the referendum. But I could go with a  1/2 a percent,” Nicolaides said.

Councilman Rick Frey agreed with Nicolaides about a referendum. However, Frey also said he also received personal feedback that led him to conclude the public understands the city’s police, fire and EMS needs.

“Everybody understands that it has got to be done,” Frey said.

New plans

With concerns over cost in mind, the public safety officials went back to the drawing board to try and find less-expensive alternatives to the city’s initial plan of constructing an all-in-one facility for the city’s police, fire and EMS departments.

“There are a lot of ways to skin this cat,” Police Chief Terry Bell told the council during a special meeting on Oct. 30.

Leaning on the expertise of local builders The Korte Company and Plocher Construction, they brainstormed alternatives that could be paid for with the new  1/2 -cent tax.

Option 1

The first option was to do nothing in regards to creating the business districts and implementing any new taxes.

This would mean public safety needs would just have to be met as funds became available. In this case, Bell said the department would be subject to increased liability as building repairs and equipment replacement would have to be kicked down the road. During that time, costs would also rise, Bell said.

“There is a total that just keeps scrolling here as we are talking,” he said.

Option 2

Renovating the current police department, located at 820 Mulberry St., as well as Fire Station No. 1., located at 1115 Broadway, is another option.

Renovations at the fire station would be:

▪ Adding two floors to rear of the building.

▪ Addressing the collapsing wall at the rear of the building.

▪ Adding an elevator and addressing other American with Disabilities Act requirements.

▪ Expanding the front of the building to hold all equipment, vehicles and machinery.

▪ Redesigning the floor plan for more space to move command staff and supervisors back into the building.

Renovations at the police department:

▪ Expand the front of the building out to the sidewalk.

▪ Creating a lobby with an elevator to the basement, which is where the public restrooms are currently located, and where the witness interview would be relocated.

▪ Add an enclosed sally port, a sixth garage bay and covered outdoor storage.

▪ Addressing all ADA and security issues.

▪ Redesigning workspace layout and adding locker rooms to the basement.

The combined estimated renovation cost for both facilities would be at least $4.6 million, according to Bell.

“That gets us to meeting our needs as we sit and breathe here today,” Bell said.

But while this plan would help to meet current needs, it would not be able to accommodate future growth, Bell said. It would also leave the police department in a residential neighborhood, which is a safety hazard and part of the reason why the department is seeking a new location, Bell said.

Mayor Joe Michaelis said renovating the police department would be a mistake, adding the building should have never been built in a residential area.

“I think you are really heading the wrong way even remotely considering renovating it,” Michaelis said.

Option 3

The third option looks at scaling back renovations on Fire Station No. 1 to meet current EMS needs and relocating the police, fire department and remaining EMS to existing structures within the city.

Scaled back renovations to Fire Station No. 1 would include:

▪ Renovations to accommodate current EMS operations.

▪ Adding a single story to the rear of the building.

▪ Redesigning the floor plan to maximize work space.

▪ Addressing ADA issues through remodel and addition of an elevator or lift.

The remaining needs of the EMS, fire department and police department would then be filled by using purchasing existing private buildings. Bell said the department has looked at several structures generally good locations. Renovating these structures could also address both current and future department needs, Bell said. Generally, remodeling is also cheaper than custom construction, he said.

Bell said the estimated cost of Option 3 is $5-5.5 million.

But the plan still has risks.

The cost estimate did not include the actual purchase price, just revocations, and those estimate could go up in any unforeseen issues occur, which is not uncommon when renovating.

Finally, Bell mentioned that taking private properties off of the tax rolls could have a negative impact on revenue.

Option 4

The last plan would include the same scaled back renovation of Fire Station No. l as Option 3. However, instead of using existing buildings, the city could build a bare-bone structure(s) on city-owned property. Estimated cost: $4.9-5.5 million.

Bell said this option would cover all current and future concerns for fire, police and EMS. He said this option would also give the city more control over the layout and would not impact on the city’s tax basis.

Risks Bell outlined included that staff would have to be more involved with the structure’s construction, and basic construction is not as aesthetically pleasing and the estimate does not include the cost needed to run utilities and build access roads.

What’s next?

Council members will now have to chose from one of these options, or create a plan of their own.

Bell said his preferred route would be either Option 3 or 4, would require approximately $600,000 a year for 20 years, he estimated.

Highland’s new business districts

▪ District A: Northtown and areas along Walnut Street and U.S. 40.

▪ District B: Downtown district including areas along Broadway and Highland Road.

▪ District C: Centered along Frank Watson Parkway, much of which is still undeveloped.