Three months ago, Mayor Mary Rossing formed a Safety Center Task Force to discuss the need for a new Safety Center (police/fire station) in the City of Northfield. The seven members of the task force had equal power. They were given no budget within which to develop their plans. Based on a list of tasks given them, they were to come to a consensus and present a proposal to the City Council. Their official mission statement read: (continued)
The Task Force Committee will meet regularly to research, analyze data, and define facility space needs, building locations and financing, and ultimately make a report clearly defining public safety needs to the City Council.
With this mission statement as a guideline, the Task Force acknowledged space needs (most pressing: more garage space for fire trucks) and developed a plan for a new, combined police and fire station, described by the Northfield News as “a $10.4 million, 47,500-square-foot fire and police center at one of two sites currently on the market near Hwy. 3 South.” But committee member Ray Cox proposed a different plan: Move only the fire department to a new location. Leave the police in the current location, with the possibility of expanding the facility by 45% by adding a second floor. These two projects together (a new building for fire, and a remodeling for police) could cost as little as $4 million—less than half the cost of the combined site proposal.
Cox’s plan has come to be known as the “minority” plan. Fellow committee member Jerry Anderson thinks it’s worth looking into. “We have to take the time now to explore the re-use of that building,” said Anderson. Downtown building owner Norman Butler agrees: “Rehabilitation [of a building] is always a better idea than starting new.” The current police/fire station was built in 1962 and, Cox says, was built to last 80-100 years.
Cox also points out that a deed restriction prevents the City from selling the current police/fire station property. “It’s a perfect location for a police force—close to downtown and major roads,” says Cox. “If we’re not going to use it for that, then we need to think hard about what else could be useful there.” Concerns have been raised about the current site’s susceptibility to flooding. Anderson says that the building has flooded once since its 1962 construction, but further flood precautions would not be too difficult or costly. As recent Northfield building projects such as The Crossing have demonstrated, building on a flood plain is quite possible.
Perhaps the strongest point in favor of the two-site plan is that this appears to be the approach favored by all other communities. As part of their guideline, Northfield’s Task Force examined the police and fire stations in a number of nearby towns, including Farmington, Lakeville, and New Prague. None of the other towns have combined fire and police facilities. “It doesn’t seem like combining has any administrative advantage,” said Cox. One of the main issues driving the need for a new center is that the fire trucks need bigger parking bays—which means they need a new location. But why the police should move there with them is unclear.
Anderson says he fears that the two-site plan will push Northfield over its “tax capacity.” A community cannot afford to be infinitely taxed: the tax increase that this project demands might well prevent Northfield from taxing citizens for future projects. Butler says that in recent years, taxes for property owners (such as Downtown business owners like himself) have doubled, and even tripled. The two-site plan would undoubtedly mean another sharp spike in taxes for owners like him. “But,” he stresses, “even if money was no object, it still makes sense to rehabilitate [the current site]. This is about responsible management of resources.”
Cox and Anderson, who have more than 60 years of construction experience between them, are also concerned that the “10.5 million” price tag on the two-site plan isn’t accurate. “Construction projects have a way of costing twice as much as the initial bid,” says Cox. The two-site plan has been variously quoted as costing 10.5, 12, and even 15 million—and these are just initial estimates.
Anderson stresses that this is a “budget-conscious time,” not just for Northfield, but for the world. Butler points out that there are a rising number of empty storefronts on Division Street, and empty apartments in recent housing developments. If Northfield is to look toward the future, the issue of budget must play a significant role in the projects being addressed.
The police and fire station isn’t the only thing on the agenda: downtown building owner Joe Grundhoefer refers to Northfield’s “wish list,” his term for the city’s long list of potential projects. “Every group is invested in something different,” says Grundhoefer. “In recent years, there’s been talk of a new ice arena, a new or expanded library, a new liquor store, and a new city hall, among other things. A few years ago, the total cost of all the items on the wish list came to over 80 million dollars. We always have to prioritize: that’s the purpose of a City Council. There’s a big difference between a ‘wish’ and a ‘need,” and that’s what we have to sort out with the Safety Center.”
Butler agrees that prioritizing is essential. “In personal situations, whether planning a vacation or an addition to one’s house, we always budget—we plan within our means,” says Butler. “I don’t see why the City shouldn’t be the same.”
“When it comes to the Safety Center,” says Anderson, “My priorities go like this: 1) Personnel, 2) Equipment, and 3) Site.” He stresses that spending more on the two-site plan doesn’t offer Northfield anything extra in the way of safety. Since the Task Force’s initial mission was to “define public safety needs,” it seems important that “safety” be the ultimate measurement of these two plans. If we can be just as safe by spending 4 million, why spend 10.5 million (or more)?
It’s up to the City Council to decide whether to put this decision to voters. That is, to ask citizens to choose between the combined facility Safety Center, or separate facilities for police and fire (with the police remaining in their current location). If the Council opts to not put this to a referendum, it’s possible that citizens will petition for a reverse referendum.
Cox and Anderson hope that it won’t come to that. As Task Force members, they just want the Council to take the time to consider the “Minority Report.” This is an opportunity for Northfield to consider all of the options, and choose the best plan for the future.