Special to the Salem Business Journal
Pro-business candidate Chuck Bennett crushed his opponent in the 2016 mayoral race with a campaign that promised commercial growth and added jobs for Salem.
As part of that November mandate, the new mayor is backing a May ballot initiative to give voters a second opportunity to replace a police headquarters plagued by structural inefficiencies, cramped quarters and safety vulnerabilities.
Bennett, voicing a belief held by many business and civic leaders in the community, contends that a police facility that meets modern standards will help sustain the high level of safety and security for which Oregon’s state capital is known. Those standards contribute to a standard of living that attracts new businesses and retains long-standing ones.
Recent research conducted by The Nelson Report, a public opinion research firm, indicates strong support for Salem’s law enforcement team.
Some 45 percent of Salem residents indicate they feel “very safe.”
In the same telephone poll, 38 percent of respondents rated the operation and performance of the Salem Police Department as “excellent.” Another 47 percent rated it in the “good” range.
One in 10 respondents gave police a rating of “only fair” or “poor.”
That’s an 85 percent satisfaction level with the police department’s 190 sworn officers, 118 civilian and 95 volunteers.
That same poll drilled down to search for answers why residents so satisfied with Salem police voted against the construction of a new, $82.1 million, 148,000 square-foot headquarters, a state-of-the-art campus meant to last perhaps 50 years. To many, it seemed a paradox.
“I was disappointed when the November ballot measure to build a new police station failed,” Mayor Bennett said recently. “I found out from researchers that most people who voted no did so because they thought the cost was too high. The second-most prevalent reason was that voters didn’t know enough about the measure to vote yes.”
In December, Bennett heeded the call of a citizen-led group assembled by a core of Salem’s acknowledged tribal leaders, including restaurateur Gerry Frank, philanthropist-activist Dick Withnell and former Salem Mayor Janet Taylor, among others. Meeting weekly, that ad hoc, bi-partisan group galvanized and evolved into the Friends of Salem Police, a political action committee whose stated goal this winter was to urge the city’s leadership to come forward with a revised plan for the police headquarters, one that would result in less cost and a reduction in size.
Working in concert, law enforcement leadership and the city staff came back with a proposal that whacked $20 million off the original $82.1 million project. Coming in at approximately 115,000 square feet, the re-imagined police facility reconfigured the 148,000 square feet planned for the police station voters rejected. But something vital was lost in that decision: the plan to include space for Salem’s 911 communications operation, the emergency hub that serves not only Salem but a cluster of surrounding communities.
“Those cuts were painful,” Mayor Bennett said. “There is no 911 center in the new building and the new plan does not recognize expected growth of police department staffing. We didn’t want to make those cuts, but we had to in order that the measure would pass.”
In the run-up to the November election, opponents sounded a steady drumbeat on social media and online platforms that the city’s original plan was excessive and out of proportion. Monday morning architects and city planner wannabees claimed the city wanted to erect a “Taj Mahal,” a judgment that was meant to suggest that the actual planners and architects were running amok with taxpayer dollars.
Lost in that discussion was the expertise provided by the DLR Group, architectural consultants hired by the city, whose job it was to consider all of the particular needs and realities of modern-day policing in a state capital. The DLR team spent four days in Salem conducting interviews with 29 separate police operational groups. This deep dive into the Salem-specific needs, combined with DLR’s expertise in design for security of visitors and staff, efficient work flow and movement throughout the facility, and accompanying future growth, resulted in the recommended 148,000 square foot plan.
It provided an informed view of what it might take to construct a facility that would not quickly become obsolete, as what happened when the present police station opened in 1972.
“I was hired in 1979 and the building is basically the same as it was then, with remodels having occurred throughout the years to accommodate growth and operational needs,” said Salem Police Chief Jerry Moore. “Given that, I would say the current facility has had limitations since the day I was hired.”
When the Salem Civic Center was constructed there were no seismic standards. Today, there are several layers of seismic standards that buildings have to meet to comply with city and state building codes. Public safety buildings, like hospitals and fire stations, must meet the immediate occupancy standard, meaning the building must be functional after an earthquake. To meet that standard costs on average about 25 percent more than office buildings. Also adding to construction costs are the inclusion of a crime lab, holding cells, evidence storage, sally port, SWAT and patrol armories and other areas specific to police work.
The Friends of Salem Police campaign has at its primary goal a wide-ranging objective of educating voters about the urgent need for the facility and what the benefits of its completion will mean to the people who will pay for it with their taxes. At $61.8 million the new measure is estimated to cost 26 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. For a family living in a home with an assessed value of $200,000, that investment in public safety would be about 14 cents per day.
“We have pledged to provide multiple channels of information about the bond measure to ensure complete transparency,” Mayor Bennett said. “With video posts, newsletters, press releases, social media, talk shows and speaking engagements, we plan to bombard the community with what you need to know about the measure so you can make an informed decision.
Bennett, with support from the Friends of Salem Police, has sharpened their talking points to these, in the mayor’s words:
“The current police facility is cramped and inefficient.”
“Salem needs a police center that is operational even after an earthquake.”
“Crime victims ought to have privacy and protection from alleged criminals.”
“We should build now rather than later, when interest rates and construction costs will be higher.”
It is the last point that supporters of the police center hope rings true with the business community. The time is right for an investment in safety and security, the city’s elected leaders have indicated, and the investment is much needed.
The voters spoke in November, electing Bennett over Carole Smith, who campaigned for more bicycle paths and the removal of parking meters from the library.
In the same election, voters rejected the $82.1 million police station, 52-48.
Bennett and the city council, acting in the best interests of Salem, have come back with a revised plan that takes into account the size, scope and cost concerns voiced by the people who elected them.
In the weeks leading to the May ballot, a public awareness surge will saturate Salem.
This time, supporters mean business.
Salem Business Journal, April 2017