City mulling utility fee to pay for $18 million construction -

If you walk into the lobby of Oregon City’s police station to report a crime, it’s likely you’d be standing next to one of the hundreds of sex offenders in the city who are required to register there annually.

PHOTO COURTESY: SCOTT MOORE, GROUP MACKENZIE ARCHITECT - Oregon City's new police station is designed with a public plaza at its front entrance honoring both fallen Officer Robert Libke and the former Mt. Pleasant Elementary School building.That’s because it’s the same crammed lobby for police, code enforcement and the Oregon City Municipal Court. In the court, defense attorneys must communicate with their clients in a small hallway or in the parking lot, and bailiffs are often forced to conduct searches within the courtroom itself.

RENDERING COURTESY: SCOTT MOORE - OCPD's police vehicles, in a concept for a new police station, could be housed in a secure parking lot, near the back entrance for registering sex offenders and away from the public plaza on Linn Avenue.There are lots of other public-safety problems with the current Oregon City Police Department facility, but city officials say it doesn’t have to be this way:

• Instead of featuring a parking lot with unsecured police vehicles, kids playing in the park on the same property as the police station could change how the force is perceived in the community, said Chief Jim Band.

• A glass-fronted facade wouldn’t merely be an attractive architectural touch for OCPD’s new headquarters — it would reinforce the idea of transparency in government and transparency in what the police department does.

• Designed as a central hub of community policing, OCPD’s building would have a public meeting space large enough for citywide meetings and could host training events with surrounding public-safety agencies.

• OCPD’s new headquarters at the former Mt. Pleasant Elementary School would be named for Robert Libke, a reserve officer shot in the line of duty in November 2013: “With some authority of the city saying ‘this is a safe community’ right in the heart of the city, right on Linn Avenue where he was killed, I would like that to be his legacy,” Band said.

• Mt. Pleasant School’s rich history on this property would be commemorated by using some of the original school’s bricks to recreate its original main entry and through information and pictures in the public square that would tell the story of the different school buildings that have been on the site.

• Giving the police department the ability to grow as Oregon City does, OCPD’s station would have to accommodate an estimated 69 sworn police officers and 20 non-sworn employees by 2035. In the new OCPD, Municipal Court and police would be on different levels; quiet rooms would provide victims space to wait and speak privately, where people could get help in a private setting, where attorneys and the city prosecutor could meet with clients and witnesses in private; a second entrance would be designated for hundreds of sex offenders to register every year, for people to retrieve or drop off evidence, or for suspects to turn themselves in, all away from the general public and crime victims.

• This $15 million building plan would include the police department, Municipal Court, Code Enforcement, a large public meeting space and a modern Emergency Operations Center. Another $3 million covers the preparation of the site and improving the green space for the public's use.

Funding the plan

All of this could be possible with a property-tax bond that would cost the average Oregon City homeowner about $10 a month. However, the county seat is home to hundreds of acres of government property that’s not on the tax rolls. Since county and state agencies rely on local law-enforcement services just as much as taxpayers, city commissioners have determined this option would be unfair.

Instead, a temporary utility fee would charge the average Oregon City homeowner $5.50 a month over the course of 20 years. Medford set a precedent for this in 2013 by dedicating a $4.82/month utility fee for new public-safety facilities, and Gresham recently implemented a $7.50/month fee for more police officers.

“I have a 15-year mortgage on my house, and it hurts a little more, but it saves a lot in interest,” Band said.

So city commissioners also are considering a plan that would save taxpayers more than $2 million in the long run by charging $6.50 a month over five fewer years. Band has been sharing this information with neighborhood and community groups, and he will going to be going back to the City Commission in April with the feedback.

Mayor Dan Holladay is among the three new city commissioners who have continued to support the idea of funding the police station through a utility fee rather than a general obligation bond.

Band hopes the commission will approve starting the utility fee in July. After a couple years of collecting the fee, the city would ask voters for approval of a bond in November 2017 or May 2018, to be paid off through the utility fee. The fee would sunset once the police station was paid for.

“The cost of the project would be offset by a couple million dollars we had saved up, plus the $2 million estimated sale of this property,” Band said. “We will benefit also by this property going back on the tax roll.”

With “probably the best new business project, Danielson’s, right next door,” he didn’t foresee any trouble selling the old police station.

“The community is growing, and we need to grow with it,” Band said. “This is a smart plan, and we’ve really put a lot of thought into it.”

Makeshift current facility

Originally built in the 1960s as the welfare office in Oregon City, the current OCPD station on Warner Milne Road holds 43 sworn police officers and 13 non-sworn employees. In 1985, there were about 25 sworn police officers and a few non-sworn employees occupying that space.

Because space is limited, OCPD had to put three double-wide trailers in the back of the property for its detective division and patrol sergeants, and to address some storage needs. When major incidents occur, one of these trailers becomes a makeshift emergency operations command center. Only large enough to accommodate 15 people, however, this makeshift command center forces detectives and officers to go through the Municipal Court in order to communicate with one another.

When trials take place, jury members go into a storage trailer to conduct deliberations, but often are interrupted by other police business throughout the day.

Due to a lack of storage on the main level, overflow evidence is kept in a basement prone to occasional flooding, creating a risk of mold and other damage to critical clues. OCPD’s armory currently is in an old storage room lacking the space and ventilation for cleaning and maintaining police firearms. For that reason, weapon-cleaning equipment shares the same space as evidence overflow as well as storage of other unrelated supplies.

Unlike most civic buildings in Oregon City, except for the Carnegie Library, OCPD’s new facility would be designed for a specific function. As such, it would include a properly equipped armory, a large evidence room and enough storage to keep all equipment onsite.

Long time coming

The topic of OCPD’s building has been around since Band was hired in 1999. When City Hall moved out, some renovating uncovered the fact that no permits could be issued on the City Hall’s former potion. Although the police managed to set up a gym and code enforcement over there, it was only another makeshift fix. OCPD is required to be in an earthquake-safe building by 2022.

Mt. Pleasant Elementary’s building has the same seismic problems or worse than the current police-station building. About 40,000 square feet, plus an annex building of 7,000, were designed for classrooms, not public safety.

“I was nervous about this building deal heading over to National Night Out,” Band said. “Then all I heard from most people went from ‘What are you going to do’ to ‘When are you going to do this,’ and when people told me, ‘We want this built now,’ I knew we were on the right track.”

City Hall overflow

Oregon City’s City Hall on Center Street also wasn’t designed to hold its staff, so many city staffers were forced out into a separate building up the hill.

A second phase for construction at the former Mt. Pleasant Elementary School property is envisioned, but estimates haven't been done for how much it would cost to build a new City Hall at the site.

Meanwhile, the city is paying $11,590 a month to rent extra offices on Molalla Avenue.

Mayor Dan Holladay says that he expects this second phase will be paid for through additional tax base and system-development charges generated by large projects on both sides of downtown. The Willamette Falls Legacy Project's developer recently agreed to zoning changes, and Holladay predicted that a developer will be announced for the Rossman Landfill by the end of this year, with construction there beginning in 2016.

Holladay will give his first State of the City Address 11:30 a.m. on Friday, March 13, at the Abernethy Center. For tickets, call the Oregon City Chamber at 503-656-1619.

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