There has been a lot of discussion over the proposed Clarence Lightner Public Safety Center. It is my sincere wish that we, as a council, can come to a resolution on this indispensable project. As elected officials, our responsibility and commitment to public safety must always be first and foremost in our minds.
In considering this decision, there are three questions that must be answered. 1) Are new Public Safety facilities needed? 2) Is this the right time to move forward? 3.) Is this the right facility for our public safety needs?
Our city and especially our public safety staff are currently confronted with some pressing needs. Our 911 emergency response center is woefully inadequate and faces serious facility issues. Our police are in a building that was originally built to serve as a city hall and have been “making do” for years in a sub-standard facility. To put more money into a building that would require millions just to bring up to code and is past its ability to serve our needs, is just too short sighted. It is clear new facilities are needed.
As to the timing, some have stated that it is speculative to argue interests’ rates will go up. That is another shortsighted and irresponsible position. While there is no guarantee that interest rates will rise, we did see them tick up last week. We can be very confident they will not go down in the near term. Failure to act now could end up costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in interest rate costs alone. The County and City recently have seen as much as 30% savings in construction costs. Again, we have no guarantee they will not rise or fall, but we do know they are low now.
As well, it is a mistake to discount the impact 1800 jobs will have on our community at this time. As of December 2009, North Carolina’s unemployment rating was 10.9% who North Carolina pays benefits too. We must remain diligent to take steps that most of those jobs go to our local citizens. Not only would it be meaningful to these 1800 people, but could help alleviate what the state is paying in unemployment benefits each month. It is important for us, as a city, county and state, to work together in recognizing the needs of all of our citizens.
The final question is ‘is this the right facility’. It has been argued that the current location is too valuable to use for a municipal project, and is better off reserved for private investment. This site has a long history of being used for municipal facilities. The key to good public safety is having great people. Telling these 800 plus public servants that the value of real estate is more important than they are is a poor way to achieve that goal. How we treat our public safety staff says a lot about our City.
The site is also next to the main telecom switching station, creating opportunities for synergy in our data center needs and security.
This building will be far and away the safest and most secure building of any owned and operated by the city. Certainly it will be an improvement on those buildings that currently house our public safety functions. Although there should have been a more robust public process, releasing a secure threat assessment to score political points is not how you protect public safety. The possibility of threats, both natural and man- made, raised by that assessment have been addressed by the professionals we hired during the course of the design. We should reconsider utilizing unscreened public spaces, and having a public viewing auditorium for the call center.
The City has already spent millions of dollars and hundreds of hours of staff time in the development of this project with the intention to accommodate the future needs of our public safety departments. Housing all of these departments together in a facility to truly coordinate public safety planning will create significant efficiencies and savings that will benefit taxpayers for years into the future.
Although there are certainly areas that should be adjusted with in this project, going back to square one now will cause more delays, and end up costing taxpayers more money. The police department will be moved out of their current headquarters this month leaving an empty building downtown. The process of undoing all the work done to date, re-evaluating all of the project parameters, including site selection and acquisition, site approvals, programmatic distribution and building another (or 4) designs is short sighted and fiscally irresponsible.
We have to be able to look at the big picture and make decisions that will be the best for Raleigh today, and 30 years from now. We should not make a short term decision for the sake of political expediency. Public Safety is the core function of the City. The best course for the Council to take now is to make adjustments to this current project so it meets our future needs efficiently, and move it forward. . At this point, starting from scratch would be penny wise/ pound foolish, and jeopardize the level of public safety our citizens have come to enjoy.