City hits the brakes on $35M safety building

Shocked by cost and with questions about impact, Port aldermen delay vote on fire, police department facility

A BRAY ARCHITECTS rendering shows the fire department portion of a proposed $35 million Port Washington public safety building that would also include the police department.
Ozaukee Press staff

PORT WASHINGTON — Shocked by the $35 million price tag for a proposed public safety building, Port Washington aldermen postponed a key vote on the facility Tuesday until they can get answers to questions about the impact the project will have on taxpayers and the city’s ability to borrow for other initiatives.

The Common Council voted to postpone until June 4 a vote on authorizing a final design of the public safety building.

In doing so, the council followed the recommendation of General Government and Finance Committee members, who earlier Tuesday night expressed concern about the cost of the project and the unanswered questions about paying for it.

Specifically, the committee tabled a recommendation to contract with Bray Architects, which has just completed preliminary design work for the joint fire and police station that would be built at the corner of highway 33 and LL on the city’s west side, to prepare final designs.

Finance Director Mark Emanuelson told the committee that if the city proceeds with the public safety building it would get fairly close to its borrowing limit.

“I think we’re going to get near 80% of our debt service limit if we go ahead with this project,” he said. “Hopefully we don’t have any other infrastructure needs or issues.”

Ald. Jonathan Pleitner, chairman of the committee, said, “It would get us really close to our debt service limit.”

Several committee members were aghast at the estimated cost of the facility.

“Was anyone else thrown on the floor by the $35 million amount?” Ald. Deb Postl asked. “To see $35 million was a shock.

“I just can’t get past the $35 million. Honestly, I couldn’t sleep last night.”

She asked if the public safety building could be built incrementally, with the fire station being completed first and the police department facility to follow at a later time.

“I understand nothing is going to go down in price, but sometimes it makes more sense to build incrementally,” Postl said.

Public Works Director Rob Vanden Noven said it would cost more to build the facility in two stages.

Officials also expressed concerns about committing to the project by approving a final design contract with Bray when the city has yet to purchase the land for the facility from Ozaukee County and is still negotiating with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation over a costly Highway 33 easement needed for the project.

“We’re starting to commit a lot of money to a building before we even own the land,” City Administrator Melissa Pingel said.

The city has an option to purchase the 6.67-acre site for $275,000 from Ozaukee County.

Committee members voiced their concerns again at the Council meeting when the item came up for a vote.

“We’re just not in position to say all the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed in us understanding the impact short term for this engineering work and long term for the whole project,” Ald. Dan Benning said.

Pleitner said the cost gave him pause.

“I don’t want to be too hasty in what we’re talking about here because I think this is the first time we’ve seen that $35 million number. To see that over the weekend — it was a big shocking number,” he said.

“To know without having an extremely firm grasp on what the capital borrowing looks like, the debt service we’d be bumping up close to in terms of financing this project, I think gives me and gives the rest of the Finance Committee a lot of pause.”

Postl said she needs time to understand the details of the funding so she can field questions from citizens.

“Unless I have a clear understanding and I can explain to any constituent how we are going to pay for this and what the financial impact is going to be to the city, I think we need to pause just a little bit. Give us time to learn so we can explain clearly where we’re headed, why we’re doing what we’re doing and how we’re going to pay for it,” she said.

Mayor Ted Neitzke asked Bray Architects President Matt Wolfert what effect delaying the project would have.

“I would say two weeks to a month would not impact it, but anything past a month I would say we would need to start accounting for two things,” Wolfert said.

Those are inflation, which he said isn’t as high as it has been but is still 3% to 5% in construction, and winter construction costs. The project was slated to start next spring so the building would be enclosed by Thanksgiving.

“Any month you add on the front end is an additional month of winter construction costs and a month pushed out on completion,” he said.

Ald. Dan Benning, a member of the Finance Committee, said given the time it will take to meet with city staff to go over the financing details, the next vote would be June 4.

“None of us said no, this is bad. That’s not the case. We just want to make sure we understand how we’re going to finance this,” he said.

The Finance Committee typically meets just before the Common Council, but Ald. John Sigwart suggested holding a Finance Committee meeting on a night before the June 4 Council meeting. That would allow for a full discussion of the issue instead of having aldermen vote on the matter without time to digest the information.

Neitzke suggested those meetings should be scheduled as soon as possible.

In related business, the Council postponed hiring an owner’s representative for the project until the June 4 meeting and also suggested expanding a public facility needs assessment and impact fee study to apply to projects beyond the new public safety building “so that we don’t have to do this every time we have a major project out there. So we have a process in place,” Benning said.

An impact fee would allow the city to assess buildings constructed in the future for a portion of the cost of facilities such as the public safety building that benefit new residents but have been paid for previously.

Plans for the public safety building call for the fire department to be a two-story structure. The second floor is for living space that separates it from the operational space, Wolfert said.

The design includes fire poles to allow for fast access to the trucks.

The police department would be a one-story building with a garage that has storage and processing space. Patrol officers will have a drop-down location where they can write reports that’s surrounded by offices for lieutenants, captains and the chief.

The municipal court area would include a small conference room where a judge can have private conversations without having to clear the courtroom.

An entrance from the street is proposed for large events or for municipal court and be controlled by security, Wolfert said.

The police and fire departments will share a fitness center.

This would be the only fire and police department building in the city.

“Investments in public safety facilities like this are not five and 10-year solutions; these are typically 50 and 60-year solutions,” Wolfert told the Council in February.


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