Jacksonville to put police, fire offices at existing site

JACKSONVILLE — After an outcry from local residents against a proposal to build city offices at the Britt Steps, the City Council decided Tuesday to create much-needed space by consolidating police and fire operations at the current public works site, 400 W. C St.

The decision was 4-3, with Mayor Jim Lewis breaking the tie.

"I'm happy we made a decision," said Councilman John Dodero, who proposed the option. "I just wanted to move it forward."

Council members looked at five options before making a choice that also includes expansion of the current administration building at 110 E. Main St.

Dodero, Lewis and council members Dick Ames and Bill Leep voted for the motion. By charter, the mayor can vote on all issues. It was opposed by Bruce Garrett, Chris Gilman and Donna Schatz.

The plan calls for attaching a ground-level public safety garage to the current public works building. A second floor will be constructed atop the buildings to accommodate public safety. Emergency vehicles will exit from the garage onto Highway 238 under the plan.

The city will survey the current site to determine whether enough land is there for expansion without buying additional property.

"I think it's logical and a fiscally sound way to go," said Lewis. "We've been talking about this for over four years. You can't say we didn't give it thought."

Schatz said consensus at a public study session held Dec. 3 was against using the site because emergency vehicles would have to enter a busy state highway. Schatz had proposed locating public safety at 650 N. Fifth St.

"It was as if the council wasn't listening to the community," said Schatz.

The city originally considered consolidating services in a three-story, 21,000-square-foot structure on a 4.9-acre property, known as the Britt Steps, which is bisected by Jackson Creek and the Britt Festivals parking lot. The proposal drew criticism and a petition drive from residents concerned it would conflict with the summer concert series and add gridlock to city traffic.

City staff estimates that relocating public safety and expanding administration will cost $5.5 million. Sale of surplus city properties, including the current fire hall, could net as much as $1.6 million to offset costs. The city is exploring other options to limit public expense.

"We're looking at adjustments in the urban renewal district to provide some of the funding," said City Administrator Paul Wyntergreen.

Up to 35 percent of building costs currently can be met with urban renewal funds. That figure could be raised to as much as 71 percent under the proposal.

"If we take that approach, we won't have to go out for a bond," said Wyntergreen.

"What we needed was a decision," said Dave Towe, public safety chief. "The Police Department moved out (of the fire hall) in 1994. The mayor told me we would be in that location ... 18 to 24 months. We've been without proper facilities for some time."

Structural integrity in the event of an earthquake and insufficient space plague the current fire department location. The police department lacks proper security for evidence and vehicles.

Funds will be included in the 2008-09 fiscal year budget for architectural plans, said Wyntergreen. "An optimistic guess is that it will be built in 2009."

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboom8929@charter.net.

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