Difficult considerations lie ahead for Wilton as officials begin finalizing their recommendations for changes to Police Department headquarters and Town Hall improvements.
Key concerns include:
- How to meet the needs of a department that has outgrown a facility which itself barely serves modern policing requirements?
- How to address municipal buildings in need of major upgrade and repair?
- How to keep costs down for a community facing rising taxes and an unsure commercial tax base?
On Monday night (Dec. 16), members of the Police HQ/Town Hall Campus Building Committee presented at the Board of Selectmen (BOS) meeting. Over the last several weeks, the committee has worked with Colliers International, the project’s owners’ representative, and Tecton Architects, to put together options both for renovating and expanding existing structures or for building new buildings altogether.
On Monday, the committee was seeking BOS feedback on concepts and “very rough numbers” in order to formulate the final project recommendation in time to present it to Wilton residents to consider for approval at the Annual Town Meeting in May.
First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice asked the BOS members to come up with a price range they think would be acceptable to bring to the town. The building committee would then give Tecton that price range, and the architects would have until January to come back to the town with two options to present to residents at public sessions for input. That feedback will give the committee direction on what final plan to bring to May’s Annual Town Meeting.
What it boiled down to was this: What plan did officials think would meet the needs of the police department and town AND have a price tag that would be approved by cost-conscious town voters?
The four options the Police HQ/Town Hall Committee described to the BOS were: [Editor’s note: We’re including them in the order they were presented, but they are numbered as they are on the comparison chart, below.]
OPTION 1 “Bare Bones” (Renovation)
6,000-sq.-ft. addition/renovation for a total of 17,000 sq. ft.: $11,653,125
Police/Town Hall Committee chair Dave Waters explained to the BOS that for the first option, the committee used its original placeholder figure of $12 million (calculated from the original space/needs assessment done in 2013) and asked, ‘What can we get for $12 million?’
“Option 1, frankly, doesn’t get you very much of anything. Would be only the police building–no other town buildings or town hall, and wouldn’t get you very much with the police building. It would not get you multipurpose room, would give you reduced office space below the space/needs assessment that was originally developed; would give you reduced evidence storage below what was proposed and developed,” he said adding, “Frankly, it doesn’t get you much at all for spending a fair amount of money.”
(Later in the meeting First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice, pushed for some clarification. “I don’t want anybody to think you spend $11 million and you get nothing. You do get a larger building and the whole building gets renovated.” To which Waters said, “You’d get 6,000 sq. ft. more and you would get a renovated building, yes.”)
OPTION 4 “Soup to Nuts” (New Construction)
19,500-sq.-ft. new building plus Town Hall Campus improvements: $22,240,625
At the other end of the spectrum, Option 4 includes a new police building on town campus; moving some Town Hall departments to Comstock; relocating town employees from the Annex to Town Hall; demolishing the Annex and “redeveloping everything.”
“It gets you everything–reconfiguration of town hall, it addresses all of the space/needs assessment, and you could get for $22 million,” Waters explained.
Knowing $22 million is too steep, the committee explored a two other options, focusing just on new police building on Town Hall Campus.
OPTION 3 “Police Building Only” (New Construction)
19,500-sq.-ft. new building: $15,950,000
The committee asked what the cost would be for a new police building on Town Hall campus. According to Waters, all of the space/needs assessment requirements could be addressed for just under $16 million.
OPTION 2 “Police Building Only” (Renovation)
8,500-sq.-ft. addition/renovation for a total of 19,500 sq. ft.: $15,434,375
Waters described the scenario of using that same $16 million from Option 3’s new construction and instead opting for renovation/addition of current facilities. Doing so would give the same total space but would not address several space/needs assessment items; it also it means added complications of working through construction, moving people around and disrupting services; most importantly, he said it’s not as efficient.
“Even though it’s the same size (19,500 sq. ft.) building, if you were doing the renovation/addition, to get the same services as you would in a new building, you really would need to have a 22,000-sq. ft. building,” to accommodate the existing space being added on to.
Waters said the committee’s overall recommendation was for the $16 million option for building a new police headquarters. Collectively, the opinion is that the $12 million option “…doesn’t get you much of anything [and] frankly, it’s not a good use of taxpayer money. On other hand, you could go to $22 million and get everything. Or the sweet spot seems to be $16 million for a new building–because that same $16 million for renovation and addition doesn’t get you the same thing as the new building would.”
He noted that the options for “police station only” (options 2 and 3) don’t address deferred maintenance (and associated costs) required for the other old and existing Town Hall buildings.
“It’s not nominal, but it’s not $6 million worth either,” (the cost difference between only a new police station at $16 million and both new police building and upgrades/maintenance at Town Hall buildings–electrical system upgrades, etc.–at $22 million).
Waters also said that the committee analyzed all options fully, with the help of Colliers, to examine the ramifications of choosing one option over another; to figure out where are the values and where does it make sense not to do something.
With the recommendation, he acknowledged that the final direction was up to the selectmen, to determine what option–if any–to flesh out and bring to the town.
Cost Conscious about Needs vs. Wants
Waters answers some questions from the selectmen, noting that with the option for just a new police building, any new building would likely be built in the parking area located between Town Hall and the current Police Station. Once the Police Department moved into the new building, the old building would be demolished.
He also added that if the town wanted to focus on just a new police building now, it could presumably consider necessary changes to the other town hall campus buildings in the future.
Vanderslice said that the committee had originally been asked to determine whether $12 million would be sufficient to address the needs of a new police HQ and also potentially fund some or all of the necessary improvements or maintenance to the other town hall campus buildings.
What it learned was that $12 million was not sufficient to include any work on the Town Hall and Annex buildings, and that it wasn’t even sufficient to completely address the Police HQ work.
Despite the needs in all buildings, the officials acknowledged what the priorities are–and the willingness of the town to fund what would be required to change everything that needs to get done. Police HQ, they said, was in most critical need to be addressed.
Other than needing to fix the roof and upgrade the electrical system, Town Hall is ‘in relatively decent shape,’ said Waters. And conditions at the Annex are manageable as well. Even as the BOS members sat in the chilly Town Hall conference room for their meeting Monday night, the members compared needs vs. wants.
“You’re in a room that’s cold. We can wear coats, you can wear a scarf. There’s no insulation in my office, in Sarah’s office,” said Vanderslice, listing other problems too. “All those same issues still exist and will have to be addressed over time. The same with the Annex. The winter is here, the plastic goes up. Is it a pleasant place to work? No,” Vanderslice said. “Would the public vote yes for $22 million? Absolutely not. And I don’t think any of us are going to recommend spending $22 million.”
Waters echoed that conservative outlook.
“People think building committees are like, ‘Let’s spend and build as much as we can!’ We take our job very seriously, thinking we are the stewards for the town, as far as what’s the appropriate thing we do and we’re not recommending the ‘soup-to-nuts’ route,” he said.
Waters said the committee members’ consensus was that, ‘the best bang for the buck’ would be the new building but only the new building.
“That would give you the SOR [Statement of Requirements] for the police department; it would give you a brand new, efficient building; it would give you more than you would get if you did the renovation and addition for the same cost; and it would give you what you were looking for,” he told the BOS.
Lynch expressed his gratitude that the project was this far along in consideration.
“I am incredibly grateful, we all are, to be here, to actually be discussing this. You know it’s been a 20 year venture. The building is too small, but we also understand budgeting and we’ll make whatever we get work, because we absolutely need something. We’ve already cut quite a bit, but we’ve assessed our needs, our wants. We’ve had professionals tell us we need a lot more but we’ve been functioning with a lot less.”
Both selectman Josh Cole and selectwoman Lori Bufano said they thought even $15.9 million was a price tag the public would have a hard time accepting.
“Four of us have been here campaigning, talking to people, knocking on doors. The single most important issue that I talked to people about is taxes. We just came through a revaluation, and I want to give [Police Chief] John [Lynch] everything he needs to do his job. But we also have to make sure we’re not going to blindside people with a giant tax bill on top of a higher assessment,” Cole said.
He suggested the committee examine what it could offer to residents as an option costing $13-14 million as well as one at $16 million.
“We may come out of this looking at something at $14 million and saying this doesn’t make sense. But we should at least have that exercise and figure out if there’s a way we can do it more cost efficiently,” said Cole.
Whether that eventually winds up as new construction or renovation would be determined by the experts.
“That will be up to the architects to try to figure what they think is the best way of doing that,” said Waters. “My gut says that because of the inefficiencies of renovation that the extra square footage you have to put in to get to the same program usable area would mean that a new building is better than a renovation and addition. But they may say otherwise. So we’ll leave that up to them.”
Vanderslice compared it to a home renovation. “It’s like getting bids on a kitchen. I’m not spending $100,000. What can I do for $40,000?”
She did caution the building committee to make sure that any final proposals did not include permit fees. “I’m pretty sure this BOS would not vote to approve bonding fees we pay ourselves.”
One other consideration is that WestCOG (the regional organization of towns to which Wilton belongs) is conducting a feasibility study about shared public safety and police services. Some findings are expected to be completed by Dec. 31, which the committee will consider.