Guest blogger Athena Currier: That pesky Safety Center minority report

Northfield safety centerThree 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.

29 thoughts on “Guest blogger Athena Currier: That pesky Safety Center minority report”

  1. Athena: I haven’t read the report. What are the “public safety needs” identified in the report? What public safety needs are currently deficient that need correcting?

    1. David: if identifying the “public safety needs” was part of the initial task of the citizen group/TF, then I think you need to ask members of that group to identify the needs which guided their evaluation.

      From following the discussion of this issue, as well as the “minority report”, I can’t see where that discussion of “public safety needs” provided the guiding influences of the outcome.

      The overwhelming need is for the firemen to have a safer and more efficient space in which to keep themselves safe, while rushing to get out to an emergency and thereby ensuring the safety of the citizenry.

      So it seems to me that the safety issue got philosophically morphed from the firemen’s safety, which then supports our safety, to “we need a big new joined facility and where should it be?” This is a real mistake considering the ‘money woes’ of the city. The needs and costs cannot be divorced, especially at this time.

      As often happens if there is not a chair to focus the outcome, a group will get off track onto a periphery, no matter how well intentioned they are.
      I think there would have been a more focussed ( on safety and cost) discussion, if there had been a chairperson with the expertise to keep the group on a philosophically agreed-to outcome.

      Ray Cox’s past endeavors in both school district and state, as well as construction, would have given him the ideal skills for that task.

      Once again, we arrive at controversy because a guiding, philosophically agreed-to, policy has not been set at the beginning.

    2. David –

      Thanks for commenting but, more importantly, thanks for asking the KEY QUESTION. That would be: “What are the public safety needs that need correcting”. More generically, it would be: “What is the problem?” and THEN “What are the possible solutions?”

      As you know, Ray Cox is my brother-in-law and, as you may have guessed, Athena Currier is my daughter. I’ll get those facts right out there, ’cause some folks might consider me terribly conflicted.

      My daughter was a little bit upset at how her Uncle was treated by some people and/or entities in town for asking questions and raising concerns. She was not alone.

      As you are aware, a few of us, NDDC folks, Chamber folks, and Commercial Property Taxpayers, got together to talk with Ray and his fellow Task Force member Jerry Anderson about the so-called “Minority Report”. We wanted to hear a little more about the problem and possible solutions.

      I may be over-simplifying, but it seems like we’ve got four lanes of fire trucks parked in three lanes of fire station. So I guess the problem is not enough space for the firetrucks.

      The other day Keith Covey (oh yeah, he’s a long-time mentor, Blandin Buddy, and my boss at the NDDC, so I guess I’m conflicted there too) shared an interesting thought on problems and solutions with us. He said that when we worked at Carleton (where he was responsible for the tens of millions of dollars of facilities that most of us call the College), they had a standard expectation when they asked for potential solutions to a problem.

      Generally, they expected three proposed solutions to every problem. Keith called them the Chevy, the Pontiac, and the Cadillac. It seems like we’ve heard about the Cadillac and Ray was asking about the Pontiac and the Chevy.

      We could take it even further. When I worked at ArtSpace Projects, my boss, Kelley Lindquist, used to squeeze the pennies pretty hard. After we’d explain the three car options to him, he’d always ask “And what is our risk if we do nothing?”

      Gosh David, are we agreeing again? Do we both believe that asking more questions, especially if it is related to possibly spending millions of dollars, is a good thing?

      I guess we have been experiencing an unusually cool summer…

    3. Ross: I guess we know what the Cadillac version is.

      Mayor Rossing talked to the Chamber board on Wednesday. In fairness to “the City”, it sounds as if planning is in the very preliminary stages. I don’t think the City has developed a decision rubric on how to value the “safety needs”.

      Thanks to Ray for sticking his neck out and issuing a Minority Report.

    4. David –

      If I understand the process to date correctly, we’ve got over a year’s worth of work between the internal task force and the external task force, not to mention tens of thousands of dollars of staff time and consultant time, for a result that is now being spun as “very preliminary”.

      Let me be quite clear that I am only expressing my very personal opinion now…

      …with a report that does not appear to have assembled critical information for good decision-making, and a process that does not appear to have even asked, much less answered, many of the key questions, the product currently before us is a recommendation that a number of people within the community view as neither operationally necessary or financially feasible.

      I hope you understand my hesitation to raising a toast in celebration of the latest p.r. on this subject.

    5. I can’t tell from the placement of the quotation marks in 1.3 WHO said that the safety center task force results are “very preliminary”… however, I must strongly agree with Ross in 1.4, and with his dissatisfaction at that phrasing.

      Whoever said that seems to have little cognizance of the direness of the monetary situation, or the kind of stress and apprehension that many people are feeling.

      To spin the results of the process regarding the task force… which now seem to require some serious reconsideration… leaves a less than secure feeling in current process of leadership, and the openness of the discussion.

  2. The first truck out the door for any fire in this area – whether it’s in the city of Northfield or on I35 or on rural land – is the Rural Fire Association’s truck. The rural fire association, serving the surrounding townships and the city of Dundas, owns this truck. We’ve had to spend up to $50,000 more on the last few trucks we have replaced in order to get a special-sized truck which barely fits into the safety center bumper-to-bumper with the other trucks.

    One of the comments I heard at last night’s inter-governmental meeting was that the $10million+ safety center needed to be a beautiful building that would make the people of Northfield proud.

    The township supervisors at this meeting asked if Northfield’s architectural design standards were driving up the cost of this building. There’s no interest in a Taj ma(fire)hal. What’s expected and would be supported is a serviceable utility building that fits the trucks that we use to keep folks safe, and located where everyone served can be reached without delay.

    Kathleen Doran-Norton
    Bridgewater Township Supervisor

    1. Kathleen,
      Are the townships contributing to the cost of the new Safety Center?

      What’s expected and would be supported is a serviceable utility building that fits the trucks that we use to keep folks safe, and located where everyone served can be reached without delay.

      Unfortunately, “located where everyone served can be reached without delay” almost certainly means, “located where everyone can see it.” The existing Safety Center (on the outside, at least, is a pretty nice-looking building. I worry that if the City were to really take the cheap route on the building design that it would simply shorten the life of the new building — people would get tired of looking at the gray cube on the side of the highway.

  3. Sean And Kathleen: to address two people who I admire and most often agree with: It is essential that we have a new fire hall/station.
    It is essential that the cost be manageable.
    It is essential that NF has the cooperation of the Rural Fire Dept.

    There is absolutely zero reason why we cannot have a cost conscious building which is a fabulous design; a building that is essentially a brilliantly designed pole barn, NOT a grey cube on the highway.

    Jay Jasnoch , where are you? I know you can do this; you know you can do this! A fabulous design, an exciting design, with industrial materials.

    This notion of a building such as Lakeville can afford to put up is just BS; priorities that would ask that at this time are just ‘screwed up’ and fatuous.

    The building that will make NF “proud” is one that most adequately serves the needs of the fireman and the community, and is a stunning design, built at an affordable cost, with the least expensive suitable materials.

  4. The city has indicated several times over the last year that it plans to talk with the Rural Fire Association and all other entities about financial support for the fire hall. The paper has reported a proposal to raise permit and other fees to pay for it.

    Drive by the new fire hall in New Prague. For less than $3million, they got more than a gray box.

    In terms of location, it’s not about visibility. It’s about projected development patterns, high risk/industrial land usage, increased train traffic, projected car and truck traffic patterns, and congestion at 5th and Hwy3 as factors in the decision of where and how many stations are required to serve our community for the next couple of decades.

  5. I admit I don’t know the safety issue factors of a combined operation (fire and police combined) versus separate operations, but I heard from a city council member that the city knows that in the not too distant future a second fire station will be needed. If that is the case, what is the over riding need to place the police only with one of the the eventual two fire stations? Granted, the second fire station will be a sub station, (likely to be on the north side since the one everyone is talking about will be fairly far south of down town). But might keeping the police in the middle be worth considering, longer term, perhaps? And since a second fire station is in the offing, maybe saving money on the first might be a consideration, also. I agree, though, safety first.

    1. Landon: That issue came up during the Chamber discussion with the Mayor and the Administrator. If I understood the Mayor correctly, the Committee’s primary purpose was to study where the Safety Center would be if it were to be relocated, not to decide if a new Safety Center should be built.

      Perhaps one of the Task Force members, the Mayor, or the Administrator could shed some more light on the issue.

  6. David, you are pretty much correct. I served on the task force. We were mainly charged with locating and evaluating sites for a safety center. We did spend a small amount of time looking at the present safety center, mainly focusing on the fire department conditions. We also traveled to 5 other cities to visit their sites, mainly fire halls. All the sites we visited had separate police and fire facilities.

    I’ve not seen it, but I understand the engineer’s report contracted for by the city, regarding the present safety center, has been released. A reporter from the News called me yesterday and informed me that the report indicates that for about $325,000 the present facility can be flood protected. I understand it also includes other less costly options so that the present safety center building can continue to be used.

  7. Ray: The mayor suggested that the committee wasn’t charged with deciding whether a new safety center was a good idea. I understood her to say that she just wanted you guys to explore options if it did have to move.

    If I am interpreting her correctly, then did the Majority Report jump the gun?

  8. David, your letter to the editor about the Minority Report appears in today’s Northfield News:
    http://northfieldnews.com/news.php?viewStory=49595

    Recently, the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors decided to support the minority report penned by Ray Cox on the Safety Center issue. Given the value of a $3 million expansion over a $12 million new facility, the choice was obvious. No doubt it would have been easier for Ray to go along with the majority. It took an act of courage, and a keen sense of duty, for him to pen that report.

    I wish I would have had the same courage and sense of duty when the city opted to spend $500,000 to make a new parking lot on Water Street. I voted against it on the committee. But, I didn’t have the same courage and sense of duty that Ray had to pen a minority report. Now we have that new parking lot, and $500,000 less in our collective pockets.

    There are currently many exciting ideas floating around Northfield, such as the skateboard park which is still a possibility. But does it have to cost $600,000? I just heard about 600 feet of bike trail that will cost $240,000. At $400 a foot, lawyers must be building it. I was recently at a committee meeting where everyone but me thought that a pedestrian bridge over Highway 3 at Third Street was a good idea. Yeah, great idea; but how many millions?

    On behalf of the chamber, and speaking for myself, I applaud Ray for his courage, and his sense of duty in watching the town’s coffers. In these trying times, we need more Rays to speak up when our enthusiasm gets ahead of our brains and wallets. And, if you want someone to speak for you, contact your chamber.

    David Ludescher, Past president
    Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce

  9. The task force, as far as I’m conerned, was mainly charged with looking at sites for a safety center. The majority of our time was spent doing that. I don’t think we were given the task of deciding if Northfield needs a new safety center.

    Building a new $12-15 million facility is a huge issue. I would certainly hope that the city council would do a lot more in depth studying before any recommendation is made about a safety center. They have the report from the task force on sites. The administration is in conversations about purchase with the owners of two of the sites. But I don’t think the community has had a chance to weigh in on all the options available, and analyze the needs of the fire and police departments.

  10. Ray –

    Are you a bit concerned about our city leaders’ decision-making processes?

    It would seem to me that the first step would be to determine IF we have a problem, the second step would be to determine the SPECIFICS of that problem, and the final step would be to develop possible SOLUTIONS to that problem.

    In a democracy, maybe an additional step would be to allow the citizens to decide which solution they are willing to bear.

    In my mind the first step would be that we seem to have a space issue with the fire department. I’m not sure whether the specifics are, as Kris Vohs suggested, that we have three feet of fire fighter changing space when we need six feet of space or, as you have suggested, that we have three lanes of parking area and we need four lanes of parking area, but I do think that clarifying that need would be the second step. Finally, I think there should be three levels of proposed solutions, simple, moderate and complex…or, low-cost, medium-cost and high-cost.

    It seems city staff met for a year, then a few citizens were added to the group and they continued meeting for a few months. Apparently the charge to the group was to determine on which site we should build a new $12-15 million facility. Personally, I don’t think that was a very good process.

    And now we hear that our city’s leaders are in conversations about purchasing a site.

  11. Monday’s (8.31) Council Work Session has the safety center as one of five important items on the agenda. I scanned it quickly, but there is more information about the safety center project in this packet than has been seen in a while, including some proposed expansions on the current site, but the implication in the packet is that expansion on the current site would be for a new use, as the recommendation attributed to the task Force is for a combined site of 47-48,000 square feet on one of two properties being considered.

    The packet also says the Taskforce recommends the City Council consider two options for financing: 1. voter approval/referendum of $10.4 million plus land acquisition costs/General Obligation Bonds, or 2. City Council approval of sale of the same amount of Capital Improvement Bonds; these subject to reverse referendum. (oh oh! Warning; dangerous territory!)

    The Public Safety Taskforce Final Report is included in the packet as Attachment #5; I did not see the Minority report included.

    I would recommend people who are interested in this issue, come to listen to the council discussion. It’s #4 on the agenda, preceded by discussions on limiting/reorganizing the Boards and Commissions, skateboard plaza review, and an update on the City Attorney selection process, so it will be a while into the evening.

  12. I have served on a few transportation committees since moving here in ’93. In my opinion, the current location of the Safety Center could not be more optimum for rapidly deploying emergency vehicles in this community. Situated at the intersection of our two busiest highways, in one instant it commands all four directions. There may be other sites in the area that offer other points in their favor. However I do not believe there is any other site which gives us the tactical advantage of immediately shutting down major traffic delays to insure the fastest response to life-threatening emergencies. Seems that should be the top priority in any comparison. And I can think of no other site’s features or costs that would outweigh this advantage. If the building cannot accommodate both fire and police, then I would recommend keeping the fire station there. I would strongly advise against giving up that site for emergency vehicles. Those two highways are not going to be relocated anytime soon.

  13. Ray Cox was the guest speaker at Lions today.  His common sense approach to creating more and better space for the police and fire departments needs more consideration.  For $3-$4 million, the fire and police can both have their immediate needs met into the forseeable future.  While the result is less than ideal for the police, it would be much better than they have now.

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