After COVID Delay, Town Officials Restart New Police Headquarters Conversation

The main attraction at tonight’s Board of Selectmen meeting will be a topic that officials will pull down from the shelf and dust off after a 20-month COVID-prompted delay: building a new headquarters for the Wilton Police Department.

For several years, Wilton Police have been working in a too-small building that has outlived its service and hasn’t kept pace with modern policing. GOOD Morning Wilton took a video tour with Police Chief John Lynch and Capt. Rob Cipolla in 2017 to see first-hand what the issues were then — and they’ve only been amplified since.


More stories on this topic:

Chief Lynch OP-ED: Making the Case for New Police HQ

Wilton’s Next Big Building Renovation: Steps to 2019 Town Vote on Police/Town Campus


Town officials have been discussing either renovating or building a new building for several years, coming closest in 2019-2020, complete with architectural plans and a schedule to bring the concept to Wilton residents for approval at a town meeting.

There had even been consideration of expanding the project to include much-needed renovations to the entire Town Hall Campus that would include security and building maintenance upgrades to both the main Town Hall building and the Annex.

At the time there had also been discussions with other municipalities about the potential benefits of regionalizing some emergency services, including dispatch, training facilities, prisoner holding, and more.

But then COVID happened.

Handling the town’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic took priority over everything, especially for First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice and Police Chief John Lynch, who also serves as Wilton’s Emergency Management Director. All town resources were redirected to deal with the pandemic and everything else took a back seat.

But now, with the need to address COVID issues day-to-day significantly reduced, officials have returned to the need to do something with the Police HQ situation. Last Thursday, Sept. 30, the Police/Town Hall Building Committee reconvened for the first time since January 2020.

Chris Burney, Wilton’s Facilities Director updated the committee on changes made to Town Hall over the last 20 months, to address many of the necessary security and maintenance needs in Town Hall and the Annex. As a result, town officials have eliminated the need to include Town Hall upgrades to the Police Building project.

  • Larger, separate workstations were constructed for employees, which increased physical separation (for COVID protocols) between town employees and the public.
  • Wherever possible, ventilation systems were upgraded, fresh air flow was increased, and monitoring of filter systems was increased.
  • Cleaning protocols were changed and increased.
  • The town is in the process of purchasing and installing card access systems, which will provide a better level of security and access control for both buildings.
  • The Town Hall roof was replaced and repairs were initiated at the Annex.
  • A communication system was installed at Comstock Community Center to allow public access to Zoom meetings.

Simultaneously, there were changes at the regional level in assessing the need to regionalize police and security functions. Captain Tom Conlan, Wilton’s police liaison with WestCOG (Western CT Council of Governments) reported that a WestCOG-sponsored feasibility study identified only two out of seven possible shared police services that Wilton, Weston, Ridgefield, Redding and New Canaan all saw as worth pursuing — a firing range and training facilities.

The study also showed that the towns did not prioritize sharing the dispatch function — something that could have implications on any final design for a new Wilton Police HQ.

Dusting off the plans, Bringing them Up-to-Date

In the 20 months that have passed, the state of the construction industry has changed.

COVID has had a huge impact on supply chains, delivery times and the cost of building materials. As a result, Burney explained that the town would have to revise its assessment of cost for the project.

“What we’ve asked the architect to do as he finalizes his estimates is to say there are two costs associated with this project: one is the cost of construction as it would have been when it was priced before COVID, and then there’ll be a separate line, which is the ‘COVID factor.’ That will be an attempt to quantify price increases that we’re seeing only because of COVID. We’re trying to show that there is no scope creep on the project that we haven’t, as a group or individually, added different things,” he said, later adding that any cost assessment would also separately show any impact of inflation as well.

In fact, the scope of the project is basically the same and hasn’t changed since the most recent Statement of Requirements (SOR) was updated by the building committee in January 2020. The architectural renderings showing the preliminary design at the time are still current and align with the SOR.

One big change that will impact the project is that Burney, himself, will be changing roles. He is in the process of retiring from his full-time (triple) duties as Wilton’s DPW and facilities director (for both the town and the schools) and head of energy management.

But resigning would allow him to take on the role of project manager for the town on this Police HQ building project, to act as the liaison between the general contractor, the Police Department, and the town. It’s a role Burney knows well — it’s the same role that he had when he first started working with the town, on the Miller-Driscoll School Renovation project.

“A lot of details we don’t have worked out yet, but certainly Lynne and I have a conceptual agreement that that is how my career will be going through the next, however long it takes to get the police department finished and occupied,” Burney told the committee.

He mentioned that the architect also has been asked to create plans for another potential structure — a firing range. Burney explained there was interest from a neighboring town (which he declined to identify at this point) to share the cost of construction of an indoor police firing range with Wilton. It would be located at the Wilton Transfer Station, and built to allow for updated training and situation simulations — and a vast improvement over the outdated, unusable one in the basement of the current Police Station.

“We can do something really different that has a great need and will be a financial benefit to the police department” Burney explained. “They will no longer have to send people out of district and cover with overtime costs.”

A cost estimate would need to be performed for the additional structure. But officials confirmed it would likely also be a separate line item, and one that falls outside of the new headquarters project completely.

Given the uncertainty about regionally shared dispatch function, Burney said there’s still a question about how much space to assign in the plans for a dispatch unit.

“There’s a consensus that we don’t want the police building to go dark. So we were looking for 24/7 occupancy. With the [likely] pullback on regionalization of dispatchers, we are including full dispatch process in our police headquarters. So the lights will always be on,” he added.

Next Steps

When the committee last met in January 2020, the Board of Selectmen had asked the members to refine the Statement of Requirements to align with the architectural plans being proposed, for a 16,800 square foot building with a pricetag of $14 million. Once that was completed and approved by the Board of Selectmen, it would have been brought to a town meeting for residents to vote on in May 2020.

Now that the project is reigniting, town officials hope to move forward on a timeline to bring the project to voters in January 2022, when there will likely be a special town meeting scheduled to consider other items — the sale of cannabis and the construction of an indoor multisport facility.

At tonight’s Oct. 4 Board of Selectmen meeting, the Police HQ Building Committee will officially present the updated Statement of Requirements for approval.

In a lighthearted moment, Burney pointed out that the date they’d be asking for BOS approval — 10/4 — presented a good omen, considering in police radio code, “10-four” means “affirmative.”

If approved by the BOS, the architect would take the next two or three months and refine the plans in order to prepare a detailed cost estimate. Those revised plans and costs would be what is presented to residents in January 2022. Residents would be asked to approve bonding whatever the final cost is estimated to be.

“We ask for approval with an estimate. So people know what the building looks like. We have a pretty good idea of what the inside looks like. We know where it is. If we get approval, then all of the consultants really go into high gear and we produce all of the detailed drawings that are required to go out to bid, the construction documents,” Burney explained.

He estimated it would take approximately six months to get to the point of being ready to start the bid process. From four- to six weeks later, the town would likely be ready to sign contracts, optimistically putting the start of construction around Labor Day 2022.

If the BOS gives approval of the revised SOR on Oct. 4, Burney will begin discussing with Michael Wrinn, Wilton’s Town Planner and Director of Land Management, to plan the application process with the land use commissions, including the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The Board of Selectmen will also consider approving the contract with the project’s architect, which has already been reviewed by Wilton’s town counsel.

Between now and January, the building committee will need to “re-educate” the public on why the new building is necessary and why they hope residents will approve spending upwards of $14 million to build it.

The public relations effort would involve tours of the current police headquarters and public information sessions, as well as meetings with town officials, before and after the Nov. 2 municipal election and Dec. 1, when new board and commission members will be seated.

“It’s moving relatively quickly, but on the other hand, it’s very much the same timetable that we were talking about 18 months ago. It’s just, instead of ramping up to May [2020], we’re now ramping up to January [2022],” David Waters, building committee co-chair said.

 

1 COMMENT

  1. As Chair of the Architectural Review Board, I’m glad to hear that the Town is preparing to move forward on replacement of the disfunctional and outdated Headquarters building. The ARB looks forward to having an opportunity to review the conceptual design of the proposed building as soon as possible, and to assist in making the new facility one that will be a source of pride for its users and residents.

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