At Tuesday night’s meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, several residents spoke out against a police station project they think is way too expensive.
“I’m all for crime fighting, but we need to spend our money wisely,” said Chris Hackett. “Our city’s in a lot of debt and our city leaders don’t know how to pay for this project, that’s scary to me.”
It’s scary to business owner Jan Wade Hensley, a lifetime resident of Covington, as well.
“When I heard we were at $6.5 million for doing the police station I thought the people that I trusted here had lost their mind,” he said. “I don’t come to every meeting because I trust y’all. I trust you to do the right things all the time.”
The project, whose loan agreement approval was on the agenda, has been in discussion for nearly two years.
During public safety committee meetings in late 2016, police chief Buddy Lewis urged city officials to explore its options for relocation.
A representative from the Center for Public Safety, was hired to conduct a spatial study for the department and determined officers needed a new place to call home.
“He expressed to me that our facility was truly the worst that he had ever seen,” Lewis told the mayor and aldermen during a February 2017 Finance and Administration Committee meeting. “Those comments from someone who has toured many facilities all over our country was embarrassing to me and should be an embarrassment to the City of Covington. The current condition of the Covington Police Department is as bad as it can be. How do you expect employees to come to work with a good attitude in these conditions?”
The city greenlighted the construction of a new facility as quickly as possible, but 14 months later they have only reluctantly agreed to a location – the former Covington Grammar School property at College and Church, which they discussed for more than a year and voted on twice – and don’t have a concrete plan for funding the project.
The former station, which was built in 1957 to serve as a town hall, had been home to the department since 1998. It had to be vacated and, in August 2017, the Covington Police Department was split into three separate offices.
Lewis has said, in nearly every meeting since, that working in different locations is confusing for the public and disrupts the efficiency of the department.
“We just need a home,” Lewis said. “We just gotta have what we’ve gotta have to do the job. If it’s a pup tent that gives us what we need, it’s a pup tent! All I want is something to work with to address this crap we’re working with.”
Hensley admitted to the board Tuesday night he hasn’t been keeping up with the discussions and thought the project was actually dead.
He told city officials he was opposed to the project for several reasons, reasons which summarize the opposition they’ve faced for more than a year.
It costs $6.5 million
The police station project is currently estimated to cost $6.5 million – that is the conversion of the property from a federally-funded park and recreation parcel to asbestos abatement, demolition of the school building, relocation of tennis courts and graves and the construction of the new building – even though the construction of a new building would be $3-4 million.
Lewis said he’s frustrated with the criticism over the cost of the project because people assume he has asked to build “a palace.”
“Buddy Lewis has never dreamed, thought or spoken, ‘Give me $6 million …’” he said Tuesday night. “Buddy Lewis didn’t add $3.5 million to the project.”
Whether a police station is built on the land or not, the conversion and demolition of the old grammar school building will have to happen.
The city is already in debt
Between the biomass gasification project, underfunded pensions, civic center loan and a settlement payment for a 17-year-old lawsuit, the city currently has a lot of debt and it has been an ongoing point of contention for this administration.
Hensley said it’s been an issue for generations.
“We’ve been struggling since I was a kid,” Hensley said, noting his family lived in rental properties when he was a child. They had to move when the landlords raised their rates. “You strap on debt, you sink the ship.”
The loan agreement on Tuesday’s agenda was for $6.5 million. The interest rate would be fixed at 3.9 percent for five years only. By the end of the term – which would be an estimated 27 years, the project would likely actually cost taxpayers more than $10 million.
Though a lot of debt will “roll off,” in the mayor’s words, in the next five years, it will only free up $350,000 of the $414,000, at least, needed annually.
City recorder/treasurer Tina Dunn said even if the project were only $2-3 million, the city still wouldn’t have enough money to pay for it.
Alderman Drew Glass said he refuses to leave a $10.4 million legacy.
“I actually agree with Drew Glass 100 percent,” said Alderman John Edwards. “I always hear the city is broke. If the city’s broke for $15,000, how in the world can we come up with $10.4 million?”
What are their other options?
The city has several options, such as moving forward with the project, raising taxes, modifying the plans for building or building in phases, moving the future station to an entirely different location, leaving them in their current offices or even disbanding the department entirely.
Hensley and Hackett pleaded with the mayor and aldermen not to raise taxes.
With a third of Covington residents living at or below the poverty line, Hensley said the cost would be too much for them.
Plans for the building have already been modified and, because it is an essential city service, a police station has to meet certain codes.
Their temporary placement situation is confusing to understand, but the state requires them to have a permanent home that meets building codes by August 2020.
Disbanding the department has been suggested several times in committee and was discussed, at length, by Hensley.
He cited the increasing crime rate, gang population and lack of resources as the reasons he thinks the city’s law enforcement efforts should be absorbed by the Tipton County Sheriff’s Office.
“We can build all of the buildings, it’s not going to solve the problem,” he said.
Noting Lewis was the previous sheriff and has quite the resume, Hensley said there was no one better to help with a transition to coverage by the TCSO.
“This is not our first rodeo where we’ve said we can’t afford it anymore,” he suggested, referencing the 2003 consolidation of city and county schools. “We made it happen. What we’re doing isn’t working.”
Hensley urged the board members not to agree to the loan and the debt it’d bring to the next generation, then also suggested Alderwoman Minnie Bommer, who seemingly joked in committee Tuesday afternoon about wanting to have her name on the building, was selfish.
After nearly two hours of discussions, the board voted, nearly unanimously, not to approve the loan agreement. McGowan abstained from voting.
Said Glass, “Everyone can agree they need a building … I have the same question: How are we gonna pay for this?”