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New public safety headquarters moves forward

New public safety headquarters moves forward

Staff says city may be able have enough money to begin plans for a civic center after paying off debt in 2029

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – The Visalia City Council is moving forward with plans to build a new public safety facility in east downtown, but one councilman is still pushing to build a new city hall first. City staff says they may be able to do both as long as a recession doesn’t come in the next 10 years.

At its Aug. 5 meeting, the city council voted to move forward with plans to build a $24 million public safety headquarters next to the Visalia Emergency Communications Center (VECC) on Burke Street north of School Avenue. 

Mike Porter, civil engineer for the city, said the two-story building would house over 200 staff members including police administration (150 people), fire administration (10 people), and the finance department (35-40 people). The facility would not have room for city administration or a council chambers. He suggested the city rent space from the Visalia Convention Center or partner with the Visalia Unified School District, or some other government entity, to use their chambers.

Council member Greg Collins asked why the city couldn’t expand its current public safety headquarters in downtown. 

“If we try to sell the current police department, whose going to buy an old PD building?” Collins asked. “Basically you’re going to scrap it and just get the value of the land. What will you do with the old fire department? Do you have to build a new fire department? It seems like a viable fire station.”

Collins said doubling the space at the current police and fire headquarters would accomplish the same goals at a fraction of the cost. He said the remaining money could then be spent on a new civic center.

“The vision for 25 years has been to have a civic center, and that is out of the door with this,” Collins said. “Vision was set years ago, purchase, try to redevelop, has been pushed off 15-20 years because all of the money will be sucked out to do this. I’m not going to support this. It’s never been the vision. I say we build a civic center.”

Porter said Measure N does include funding to relocate or rebuild Station 51 and there are locations nearby that could function well as a fire station or they could simply tear it down and rebuild on the same or adjacent property. 

Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen said he was tired of having a conversation about a civic center when the council has already made the decision to build a public safety building instead. He said rehashing the same debate over and over again was costing the city money in wasted staff time.

“We have been down this road more times than I want to remember,” Nelsen said. “This council has given that direction. We should be talking about what’s the next step, not take five steps backward.”

Council member Brian Poochigian agreed, saying the police headquarters is the city’s oldest building and therefore should be replaced sooner rather than later. 

“We decided this 5 months ago,” Poochigian said. “Now we need to keep the ball rolling in the right direction. We are still going to build a civic center and have all of our services in one area and staying true to our vision.”

A survey of public office space buildings averaged out to be $485 per square foot for a total cost of $24.3 million. Finance director Renee Nagel said the $24.3 million estimated for the construction of the building would come from a variety of sources. The city’s Civic Center Impact Fee Fund currently stands at $5.4 million and will earn an additional $700,000 in interest over the next two years. Another fund, which sets aside city surpluses for use of a future city building is $7.4 million. Another $2 million could be taken from the Police and Fire Impact Fund. By vacating and selling the police headquarters and city hall west, Nagel said the city may be able to generate another $3 million.

Nagel said most of the city’s $25.3 million in debt for other buildings should be paid off by 2029, which would save the General Fund about $2.4 million per year in debt payments. Once the existing debt is paid off, Nagel said the city could seek voter approval of a general obligation bond to build a new city hall or take out a $10 million loan, which would have an annual payment of less than $1 million. 

Councilmember Phil Cox agreed with Collins that the original vision for east downtown was to build a civic center when the city purchased the land during his previous stint on the council. He said he felt the city overpaid for the VECC but that the council voted to move forward with a public safety building instead. He said he wanted to move forward now because it will take 18 months to go out to bid and it could take up to three years to complete the design phase. 

“I don’t want to spend us down to zero, but we haven’t even talked about reserves yet,” Cox said. “We can pay ourselves interest, and haven’t talked about that yet. Let’s move forward tonight with an RFP.”

Mayor Bob Link said the original intent was not just to have a new city hall, but to have a central facility for all of the city’s offices, including a civic center, police headquarters, dispatch, etc. He said the city needed to do something with the property to kickstart the revitalization of east downtown before they lose momentum. 

“If we don’t start going forward, four years from today sitting with a new city council saying let’s do something different,” Link said.

Nelsen motioned to move forward with a request for proposal for a public safety building. The motion was seconded by Poochigian and passed 4-1. Collins cast the lone dissenting vote. 

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