Eugene Weekly : News : 4.30.09

Costly Cop Sprawl
Council backs $16 million Country Club police station
by Alan Pittman

The Eugene City Council voted 6-2 April 22 to move forward with a radically new proposal to spend $16 million in reserves to relocate the police department from downtown to a commercial office building north of the river across from the Eugene Country Club.

But critics have a growing list of arguments against the police move to 300 Country Club Road. Here’s a rundown:

Defies will of voters. The big expenditure for a new police station defies three previous citywide votes against an expensive new building. The council is moving forward without a public hearing, and no councilor has moved that the council refer the big expenditure of taxpayer money to the voters. Former councilor Bonny Bettman said, “They should definitely refer it to the ballot and let the voters have the last say.”

A bad deal. City staff have proposed paying the real estate speculator who owns the country club office building $16 million. But the building has a market value of only $7 million, according to the county tax assessor. The city’s price per square foot for the building is about double what other office buildings are advertised for in Eugene. It’s more than five times more than what commercial space has recently sold for along Broadway downtown.

City staff argue that the Country Club building is cheaper to seismically upgrade than other buildings. But they haven’t done any comparative engineering or real estate cost analysis. 

City councilor Betty Taylor said the city should advertise for proposals. “There are probably dozens of people who would like to sell us a building,” she said.

Cheaper downtown. City staff argue that building a new police station downtown would cost twice as much, about $34.5 million. But their higher downtown estimate includes a 26 percent “soft cost” markup and the cost of a building 20 percent larger. In addition, bids for public construction projects have been coming in up to a third less than design estimates due to the recession. Add all that up, and a new building downtown could actually cost much less than the 27-year-old Country Club location.

The Country Club cost also does not include potentially millions of needed interchange improvements, the cost of building and operating a downtown substation and the added time cost of police driving to and from the location. Relatively few police calls are for the north Eugene suburbs, and the courts, jail and city administration are all downtown. Police time is very expensive for taxpayers. In total salary, benefits, equipment, training, support and other expenses, police officers cost cities up to $250,000 a year a piece.

Taxpayers may pay more, but city staff will personally save on free parking, unlike downtown.  

Spending while cutting. While spending $16 million in reserves, the city is cutting services, raising taxes and fees and asking employees for a pay cut to meet a $12 million and growing general fund deficit, and a $170 million pothole repair deficit. Councilor George Brown said the city should instead spend the police building money on drug rehabilitation, jail beds and police to actually reduce crime. The $16 million building expenditure “wouldn’t hire one new cop,” he said.

Urban sprawl. All that extra police driving in gas guzzling cruisers will dramatically increase the city’s carbon footprint. With most local energy from hydropower, most local greenhouse pollution comes from cars rather than buildings. The isolated suburban location is harder to get to by alternative modes and will require more driving by commuters, customers and workers going out to eat or running errands. More driving increases traffic and reduces livability and increases taxpayer costs for more and bigger roads.

Earthquake risk. Supporters of the Country Club location emphasized the need for an earthquake safe building. But access to Country Club Road is vulnerable to freeway overpasses and bridges also at great risk in an earthquake or other disaster. Although the council majority emphasized seismic risk, it voted 5-3 against studying the risk posed by other city buildings to taxpayers. City Manager Jon Ruiz opposed the idea as “mission creep.”

Hurts downtown. The city of Eugene has spent scores of millions of taxpayer dollars in largely failed attempts to subsidize more employers to locate in its struggling and half-empty downtown. Now the city is proposing to move hundreds of its own employees to a suburban location, sending a message that the city government itself doesn’t believe downtown is a good place to build. Mayor Kitty Piercy said she feared the city will “create another hole” downtown by tearing down the current City Hall. 

Downtown and the rest of south Eugene will also suffer from longer response times as police have to drive through traffic across the river to respond to calls. Downtown will lose a police presence from officers driving to and from City Hall. 

Less accountability. Critics say it will be harder for the City Council and city manager to supervise the police and reform their us-vs.-them attitude toward the city if officers are isolated in their own remote building. Councilor Brown said it’s “very important” to have the police be part of city government. “I really believe the police should be with City Hall.”