Bexley council ready to bite the bullet on financing police stat

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With a majority of Bexley City Council members supporting the financing of a new police station out of existing funds, it looks unlikely that voters will see a tax issue on the ballot in the fall.

"We’ve all said there is a need for a new police station," Council President Mark Masser said at a July 19 finance committee meeting, held in anticipation of a July 24 vote on whether to place a tax increase on the ballot. "You don’t take this to the voters…The money is there."

Masser joins colleagues Jeff McClelland, Robyn Jones and Hanz Wasserburger, along with Mayor David Madison, in electing to pay the debt for the station out of the general fund, which stands at about $6 million.

Council members John Rohyans and Matt Lampke believe the city’s current financial picture – and its future – warrant a tax hike to pay for the station. Auditor Larry Heiser has also pushed for a ballot issue.

"The police station is something the voters would want and would vote for," Heiser said.

The Franklin County auditor had certified that a $6 million, 25-year bond issue would have cost the owner of a $200,000 home $62 a year in additional taxes.

Councilman Rick Weber said he remains undecided on the issue.

Lampke said every resident he has been contacted by has said they want to vote on the issue.

"I believe it is a much harder decision to go to the voters, and that it is easy to bond it out," Lampke said.

Masser responded that every resident he has talked to has recommended that council bite the bullet and take the money out of the general fund.

That surplus money is not going to last long, warned Rohyans, who pointed out that the city has taken on $5 million in debt for a new swimming pool and repairs to Jeffrey Mansion in the past year.

A police station project that runs close to $7 million will add $490,000 in debt payments every year.

The city is already projected to spend almost $2 million more than it takes in by the end of 2008.

While taking on debt, council hasn’t done one thing to reduce expenses, Rohyans charged.

If the majority decides to dip into the general fund to pay for the police station, "we have to roll up our sleeves this fall and make some hard choices" about spending, Rohyans said. "I’m not sure this council is ready to do that."

Any significant spending cuts will have to come through reducing personnel, which ironically could include laying off police officers, Rohyans commented.

"I would rather make (budget) cuts than go to the voters," Jones said.

There could be other ways to keep the city in the black, council members speculated.

McClelland did not rule out the possibility of a tax increase for operating expenses down the road.

And in the past, when the city has faced a fiscal crisis, they have received a bump in revenue from the estate tax, he noted.

Wasserburger said he was initially leaning toward supporting a bond issue for a project the size of the police station, and admitted that he was scared by some of the financial projections.

But after talking to Police Chief Larry Rinehart and others, and touring the station, he was convinced of the necessity of moving ahead.

"It’s not substandard," Wasserburger said of the station, as it was described by one resident, "it’s an embarrassment. I saw things you wouldn’t believe."

The risk in going to the ballot is that 90 percent of Bexley residents never see the inside of the station, the mayor said.

"You’re the only people who know how bad that police station is," Madison said. "If they say no, you’ll never have a new police station."

A tax issue is never a slam-dunk, Masser asserted, recalling that an income tax equalization proposal several years ago, that affected less than 15 percent of residents, was defeated in a landslide.

"This is a hard decision, but that’s what we’re elected to do," Masser said.

Lampke suggested that, if a tax issue was turned down, other alternatives could be considered, such as a smaller station.

Lee Nathans, with the Community Police Advisory Committee, also cautioned about the consequences of a levy failure.

Cutting corners on the station is not an option, added Nathans, who has lobbied for the project for the better part of 10 years. "We don’t want a scaled-down building. It’s the appropriate size."

Counting the costs

Prior to the discussion, council members received an update on potential costs from architect Bryan Horne, of Horne and King, who are preparing construction documents.

Horne presented a preliminary estimate of $5.3 million for a 19,000 square-foot station to replace the 55-year-old, 5,500 building now in use. The figure includes $3.7 million for construction, along with expenditures for fees and miscellaneous expenses, plus a contingency fund.

Construction costs are about $190 per square foot, which Horne called "very reasonable."

Horne said the final figures will be available by the end of August.

The estimate is about $1 million over earlier projections, according to the architect.

Plans call for building the new station at the north end of the city hall lot and using the existing building for council chambers, city offices and public meetings.

This would require demolishing the service department garage and moving that operation to a lot at Fifth and Cassady avenues. Negotiations are under way for that purchase.

The $100,000 cost for demolition is included in the latest estimates, Horne said. But the $150,000 to move the service department, and $350,000 to renovate the existing police building, are not.

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