Better planning this time

Published 10:58 pm Friday, January 20, 2012

Nobody who considers things objectively can argue that it takes money — raised through taxes — to run a city. There are many vital public functions a city the size of Suffolk must perform for its citizens, and each of those functions requires people, tools and equipment and office space in order to be completed effectively and efficiently. Those resources, in turn, require funds so salaries can be paid, equipment can be purchased and maintained and buildings can be constructed.

What bothers such objective thinkers is when the government in charge of those resources spends their money without careful planning or with a seeming disregard for the fact that the money comes from real people with real financial difficulties of their own.

Such is the concern of many people in Suffolk who learned this week that the city’s police headquarters building — before it has reached even its third anniversary — is in desperate need of expansion.

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Police Chief Thomas Bennett is asking for $1.8 million to add about 10,000 square feet on the west side of the existing building. The expansion is necessary, he told City Council this week, because of the need to store records evidence for long periods of time — as long as 75 years for some things and indefinitely for others.

Tellingly, there is little argument that the police department needs more space. In fact, the record is pretty clear that almost everyone involved in the construction of the current headquarters building agreed before it was built that it would soon be too small for the city’s needs. “The thinking is that the space we’re doing now … will accommodate the immediate needs,” Capital Programs and Buildings Director Gerry Jones said at the time.

Therein lies the problem. When public funds — taxpayers’ dollars — are involved, the projects that are contemplated by City Council should reflect a high level of planning and foresight. Furthermore, when advance planning reveals a current project might not be sufficient for even the near term, there must be a very good reason to continue on the insufficient path.

In the case of the police headquarters building, Suffolk’s reason for building what City Council knew would be an inadequate facility was, in the words of Councilman Curtis Milteer then, “We’ve got to start somewhere.” Considering all the start-up costs for a construction project, Milteer’s statement of the council’s position at the time does not meet the test of careful planning or foresight.

The good news is that construction prices are lower than they’ve been in recent memory. The police department should get its 10,000-square-foot addition at a better price than it could have hoped when council members green-lighted the inadequate project fewer than five years ago.

Suffolk taxpayers can only hope the planning that goes into the project prior to the start of construction will be better than it was the last time.