The city council voted at their September 3rd meeting 5-0 to develop plans for a Visalia Emergency Communication Center (VECC) and a public safety building that would include a modernized police department. Because of the urgent need for a new 911 call center, it was recommended that the city proceed with building the VECC even if they can’t afford the public safety building. The city council could decide later to go ahead with the public safety building if it were financially possible. That decision will be made in the fall of 2014, when the city evaluates the financial forecast and has considered the building’s financial impact on other city needs.
Visalia’s 911 call center is currently in the basement of the police department. Completed in the mid 1970s, it has outgrown its space and the center’s 1980s equipment borders on the obsolete. According to Eric Frost, administrative services director, the situation is critical. “People are stacked on top of each other. The basement is next to Mill Creek so flooding is a real risk.” Frost added, “If you don’t tell a police officer where to go, it doesn’t matter how many police officers you have.”
The proposed VECC will not just be a 911 call center. It would also house the Emergency Operations Center and the fire department administration. The public safety building would include a centralized police station. Currently the police, detectives, and gang enforcement are spread between City Hall East, City Hall West, and other locations. The new facilities will be built in East Downtown Visalia on the corner of Burke and Goshen.
Mayor Amy Shuklian reminded the board that there would be a four to six million dollar savings if the city constructed one facility to hold the VECC and public safety building right now, versus putting it off and paying for two separate buildings later. Besides the redundancy of two buildings, such as elevators, reception area and stairs, 15% of the cost is in design alone. Constructing one building would save 15% right off the top.
Because cash resources are insufficient to pay for either the VECC, let alone a public safety building, the city will need to consider how much risk they are willing to take.
Building the VECC would prove to be the lowest risk to Visalia’s finances. Its construction would not adversely impact the city’s operating budget and is a sustainable project. Of moderate risk is financing approximately $1 million a year in debt service to build a public safety facility that may not be sized, or have features, to serve the community through 2030 as previously desired. This project might disrupt city operations in bad times. The construction of a public safety building that meets all of Visalia’s needs through 2030 would be considered a high risk investment. Financing that exceeds $1 million a year in additional debt service poses a high risk of disrupting ongoing operations of Visalia.
There are some good reasons why Visalia should take on the higher financial risk of constructing a top-notch public safety building. Besides the fact that the economy is improving and interest rates are at an historic low, construction costs are also at their lowest levels. Most importantly, Visalia’s public safety needs are barely being met with the current infrastructure. “There are immediate departmental needs,” says Frost.
City staff made preliminary cost estimates of $20 million to build the VECC and $50 million to build the public safety building. Currently, the city of Visalia has $14 million available.
Councilman Warren Gubler admitted to having severe sticker shock on seeing the costs for the first time and questioned whether they were reliable numbers. He pointed out that Kaweah Delta Hospital just finished an administration building about the same size as the city’s projected public safety building for $10 million. He wanted to know why Frost felt our building would be $40 million more.
It was explained that a building deemed “essential services” needs to be earthquake and flood proof as mandated by California law, and can triple the costs. Along with the additional equipment and electrical needs, an essential services building typically costs $450 to $500 a square foot to build versus $160 a square foot for an administration building.
Council Member Bob Link pointed out that Visalia has other avenues of revenue that have not yet been explored. If the city built a new council chamber as part of a public safety complex, for example, and moved out of City Hall East, that property could be sold as a downtown hotel location. The same would be true with City Hall West, though that property is not as valuable. The sale of city property could greatly reduce the debt taken on to build the Civic Center.
During several council meetings the members have discussed the costs of fixing their current chambers. Instead of throwing away money on a building that is falling apart, their dream is to build a civic center that includes a public safety building, city administration and their chambers. Last April, Gubler expressed the desire that Visalia needs to act like a city that is maturing and build its own civic center. All of the members have expressed the need to finally consolidate staff in one location.
The city has $3 million available to build new city council chambers, but Frost estimated it might cost as much as $15 to $20 million. The council chambers would not be considered an essential building, so costs per square foot would be one third less than the VECC.
The long-range budget forecast suggests that the city can support $1.1 million per year in additional debt service, while also providing funds for new employees and general wage increases. A more expensive building would mean the city has less to invest in other areas such as staffing, capital projects and reserves. Depending on how the economy fares, it was Frost’s opinion that Visalia can afford to spend approximately $45 million, which would pay for one facility that would include the VECC and a scaled down public safety building.