RALEIGH — A proposed new public safety center, 17 stories high and containing more than 300,000 square feet of space, could be the biggest building the City of Raleigh has ever built.
The $205 million price tag also would make the Clarence E. Lightner Public Safety Center the city's most expensive building. A property tax increase would likely be needed to pay for it.
At its meeting Jan.5, the Raleigh City Council will decide whether to give the go-ahead to the downtown tower named for Raleigh's first and only black mayor.
Giving the project its official green light would let the city take advantage of lower construction costs and interest rates. But it would also mean raising taxes in the midst of the worst economic climate since the Great Depression.
Both Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker and City Manager Russell Allen want the council to move forward on the plans to put the city's police, fire, emergency communications, traffic operations and information technology departments under one roof.
But resistance could come from at least three members of the eight-member council, Thomas Crowder and newly-elected councilmen John Odom and Bonner Gaylord. Meeker will need at least four other council members to agree with him in order to move forward with the plans.
Gaylord said there hasn't been enough public scrutiny of the project. He's proposed seeing whether the current building on Hargett Street could be renovated. Both Crowder and Odom said they're planning to vote to delay the project because of concerns about raising taxes.
"It hasn't been vetted publicly," Gaylord said. "With an expenditure of this magnitude, it really needs to have public input."
Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin and Mayor Pro-tem James West both want to see the new public safety center built, citing the deteriorating conditions of current facilities and the city's ability to lock in lower interest rates and save an estimated $20 million because of lower construction costs.
But Baldwin wants the project financed in a way that wouldn't put a burden on taxpayers before the economy rights itself, she said.
Council member Russ Stephenson said he hasn't made up his mind about the best course of action, while council member Nancy McFarlane did not return a phone call.
The current police headquarters, built as a municipal building in 1959, is inadequate, Baldwin said.
"The building was built for a population of 100,000 people, not a population of 400,000," she said.
Allen is advising the council to pay for the new public safety center by taking out an estimated half-billion dollar certificate of participation, to be paid over 25 years at an interest rate of 4.2 percent, according to Perry James, Raleigh's chief financial officer.
Part of a package
Combined in the financing would be an additional $250 million worth of remote operations projects that would build more locations for city services such as street, parks and vehicle maintenance. A new solid waste plant in east Raleigh would be included.
That would mean the property tax rate would likely climb as much as 3 cents over the next five years -- from the current tax rate of $0.375 for every $100 of a home's assessed value to $0.405, according to financing models Allen showed the city council. Each penny increase would mean an extra $20 a year for a home with an assessed worth of $200,000.
Any tax increase would have to be approved in June when the council decides its budget. The earliest it could go into effect would be January 2011. Allen points out that the tax rate in the city is only a penny higher now than it was 20 years ago and that the current facilities are outdated given the speed of Raleigh's growth over the past few decades.
"This kind of project is a needed project," Allen said. "It's not a discretionary project."
If city revenue picks up - or when the economy rebounds - it could mean that the full 3-cent tax increase could be avoided, Meeker said. Or, the council could delay the penny increase for 2011 and push it off another year.
Whether the council gives the project a thumbs up or down, the city has already made significant investments. More than $20.8 million has been spent buying two new buildings on Cabarrus Street and Six Forks Road to move police operations to satellite offices, as well as the cost of designing the new public safety headquarters. KlingStubbins, an international architecture firm with a Raleigh office, designed the building plans.
'On top of each other'
The current four-story headquarters for the Raleigh Police Department, on the northwest corner of Hargett and McDowell streets in downtown Raleigh, would be torn down if the new building is approved. Originally constructed as a municipal building in 1959, when the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms was on the City Council, the current structure was turned into police headquarters in the 1980s.
Raleigh Police Chief Harry Dolan said his headquarters should have been replaced years ago.
Poor ventilation in the evidence room on the second floor of the current building results in the lingering, and at times powerful, stench of seized marijuana in the hallway outside the chief's office. In major homicide or other criminal cases, where detectives may be interviewing numerous people, snack and break rooms must be turned into interview rooms.
"We're on top of each other," Dolan said.
Raleigh Fire Department administrators, who would also use the new building, now bounce between different firehouses for space and are using trailers near the department's training facility while their administrative offices on Martin Street are being renovated, said John McGrath, Raleigh's fire chief. The city's emergency communications staff members, who answer 911 calls, are in the basement of the municipal building in a low-ceilinged room with no natural light.
"It's never good timing," Dolan said. "We really have to move."
City construction staff members have looked at possible changes in the plan, mostly switching to cheaper material or eliminating what could be seen as extravagant features, said Jay Lund, one of the project managers for the city. The building's design received an LEED gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council and has such features as rainwater collection for reuse in building chillers and use of natural light to cut down on energy costs.
The current plan also has several costly security features like blast-proof glass that could withstand explosions and four generators that would allow the building to continue operating in emergencies.
Private bathrooms for department heads have already been removed from the plans, as have granite walkways in front of the building, Lund said. He expects that other adjustments could chip away at the total cost of the building.
Odom, who rejoined the City Council earlier this month, said he wants to review the plans but is opposed to moving forward on the project as it stands.
"I'm actually for doing this type of center," Odom said. "I'm not for spending this type of money."
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