St. Helens police chief makes his case at a public gathering
A rare in-person meeting was held Tuesday, April 6, to inform the public on a proposed new public safety building in St. Helens.
At the meeting at St. Helens Middle School, members of the public were brought up to date on why city leaders say they need to replace the existing, aging, and cramped 50-year-old St. Helens police station.
On hand were members of the St. Helens Police Department, assistant city administrator Matt Brown and St. Helens City Council members.
At issue is a how the city has outgrown a police station that was built in 1971 and how the new facility, expected to be built at Old Portland Road and Kaster Road, will be funded.
Police Chief Brian Greenway opened the presentation by discussing how his police department patrols the city every day, every hour.
"Columbia County's population exceeds 50,000," he said. "We are the only law enforcement agency in the county that offers 24/7 police service."
Greenway told the audience that overnight officers can be called multiple times per night to respond to calls ranging from domestic disturbances to drunk drivers.
In expressing the need for a new public safety building, which would also house the St. Helens Municipal Court, Greenway said, "It's no secret that the Portland metropolitan area is pushing people out into rural Columbia County. It's not a secret. Housing is at a premium — there's limited inventory. It's very expensive to live in the Portland metropolitan area, whether it's Hillsboro, Tualatin, Gresham."
Greenway continued, "What's happening is our population is exploding. We have to continue to progress as a city with our infrastructure, including, specifically, the police department."
With 23 employees, and only 18 lockers in the building, Greenway said, "I don't have a locker. Our officers have nowhere to keep their equipment."
According to the presentation, because of its poor facility, the department is unable to meet accreditation standards, which seriously limits federal grant funding opportunities.
The St. Helens police building has no confidential meeting rooms, no public restrooms, room for only one person at a time in the lobby, and no proper ammunition storage, according to the presentation.
The audience also heard from Sgt. Doug Treat.
"Nobody in the police department is looking for the Taj Mahal," Treat said. "We want a facility that will work for policing in the 21st century — that's what we're looking for. We need your support. Cops don't come out and ask the public for help. We're here to help you. You're the ones that call us. We're the ones that show up to help you and this time around, we're desperately saying to you, we need this facility."
Next up was Cpl. Matt Smith, who explained there is not enough room at the current station for evidence storage.
"I can tell you that every conceivable piece of square footage in that building right now is being used," Smith said. "Imagine that it's 1971 (the year the current police department was built) and we've accumulated between 40 to 50 years worth of evidence — some of it we have to keep in perpetuity."
Smith continued, "We have just simply run out of space. There is just not enough space in that building to store all the evidence we're legally required to store."
Before taking questions from the audience, Brown noted that an ad hoc committee has been appointed to look into a funding source for the public safety building. The committee decided a public safety fund — paid for with a new fee on St. Helens water customers' utility bill — was the best way to pay for the project.
The committee picked the utility bill option over a general obligation bond, in part because it wouldn't raise property taxes.
"The committee came to the resolution that a utility fee was the most equitable way for people to pay their fair share," Brown said.
Yet to be determined by the city is whether the public safety fund would be made administratively (by the council) or whether the public would have a chance to vote on it. Another consideration by the council would be a general obligation bond, which would increase taxes.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story's headline contained an extraneous apostrophe in the name of the city of St. Helens. The headline has been corrected.
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