Kerrville's fire and police chiefs and the chairman of a committee assigned to assess the city's public safety building needs spoke in-depth on Wednesday about the plan to present the City Council a nearly 70,000-square foot building with an estimated $45 million price tag.
A 10-member committee, chaired by John Harrison, voted unanimously to present to the City Council a planned building that would house the police department, fire administration, municipal court, an emergency operations center and the city's information technology department. The committee will formally present its plan at the Jan. 11 City Council meeting.
"Well, the City Council appointed us and gave us a very, very short timeline," Harrison said of the process. "We had our first meeting, and at that meeting, we agreed upon answering a number of questions."
The biggest question that needed answering was if the city required new facilities. Previous city administrations wrestled with that question dating back to the 1980s. In 2019, the city commissioned a confidential study presented just before the coronavirus pandemic. That plan identified a 48,000-square foot building that would cost more than $20 million.
It quickly became apparent that those 2019 needs weren't sufficient in 2021.
"We took tours of all these facilities and it was very clear at our second meeting after these tours that yes, they've got a lot of deficiencies," Harrison said.
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The biggest flaw in the 2019 study was that it attempted to minimize the city from taking on substantial new debt, and the three plans presented were all partially on city-owned property. However, two plans were only big enough to accommodate the police department and municipal court. A third option would have required a three-story building. Parking was an issue at every turn.
And when then-Police Chief David Knight and Fire Chief Dannie Smith announced they were retiring in 2020, that changed the dynamic of the city's needed. In their place, then-City Manager Mark McDaniel hired Chris McCall to run the police department and promoted Eric Maloney internally to command fire.
The other change to the dynamic happened earlier this year when the city adopted new building codes. In turn, that now requires the city to have a hardened internal space to protect public safety staff from a disaster or an act of terrorism. That feature was never part of the 2019 study because it wasn't required.
Then came a recommendation from Charvy Tork, the city's IT director, to place the IT department within the building because she estimated 75% of her work is public safety. So, the building ballooned up toward the 70,000-square foot number — one that includes about 8,000 square feet of expandable spaces. The other challenge will be finding 7 acres in a centralized part of Kerrville to handle the building's proposed one-story footprint.
Harrison said landing at $45 million proved to be an eye-opening experience for the committee.
"I won't speak for the committee but I think most everybody was surprised at that size of a number," Harrison said. "But the more we evaluate it, it's the proper thing to do."
The February winter storm also proved to be eye-opening. The storm wreaked havoc on all of the city's agencies, solidifying the need for a better emergency operations center.
"That was one of the first times I think (the emergency operations center) was fully operational, fully open for an extended period of time, but we have lots other events besides the winter event," Maloney said. "We have flooding on a regular basis. We've had the hailstorms."
So, for Maloney, quickly standing up the emergency operations center, where fire commanders can be in close contact with their police counterparts, along with the dispatch center, is a critical want — for everyone.
When it comes to dispatching now, McCall calls the situation too small, and there's no room to grow. The city will upgrade its radio system in the coming months to a more reliable and expandable 700 megahertz system. That also requires more space for the dispatchers.
"You know, for me, as I looked at that space, the one area that really concerned me was the space for dispatch and the space needs that we currently have and we no doubt will need going forward," McCall said. "That's one of those. It's an expensive space to build out. It's technology-heavy. You want to be able to expand that easily."
The chiefs advocate for ongoing training, and neither department has room to do it.
"We're not really looking for the all-class building full of full of monitors and TVs," McCall said. "We want functional space."
For McCall, he sees a new police station as a way to help attract recruits, along with retaining existing officers. The shortcoming of the current police station at the corner of Sidney Baker and North streets is evident. Originally a bus station, the police headquarters was supposed to be a temporary solution — but that's now been 25 years.
"I'll say I had a recruit in a couple of weeks ago," McCall said. "A gentleman who I knew that I'd worked with at another agency previously, and he walked into the building, and I think because he knew me, he felt pretty comfortable. He just kind of walked around, looked around and said, 'wow.'''
For Harrison and his committee, the wow part will be refining their plan, which includes recommendations from Randall Scott Architects, a firm specializing in public buildings.
Harrison also cautions that this is a long-term project, with a possible bond election in May or November.
"So, we're going to pass this in May," Harrison speculated. "We will hire architects and engineers to design the building. That will take some time. We will bid the building out and 30 months from now at a minimum, 30 months. Think about that. Almost a 1,00 days before we actually get to move into this building. And so we're going to have to ask these gentlemen and their staffs and their organizations as well as municipal court to continue to manage the chaos."