Capital plan moves forward

Published 9:26 pm Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Planning Commission on Tuesday narrowly voted to send the Capital Improvements Plan forward to City Council.

After scrutinizing proposed projects and asking questions for more than an hour and a half, the commissioners voted 5-3 to send the plan forward.

Some commissioners questioned the need for certain projects. James Vacalis, a former Suffolk city manager, took special aim at a proposed $6.5-million indoor shooting range for Suffolk law enforcement.

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“What is the urgency for building this $6.5-million facility?” he asked.

Police Chief Thomas Bennett said his officers currently practice shooting at a range in Walters. However, he is not sure how long they will be able to continue doing so. It is undersized for the department, he said, which has 192 sworn officers.

“We feel we have been very fortunate to be able to go there as long as we have,” Bennett said.

If the day comes the department is no longer able to shoot at the Walters range, it would likely have to pay a commercial facility, Bennett said. That would “cost a fortune.”

“Do we do nothing and take the chance of not having a range, period?” Bennett asked. “We’re trying to plan here for the future.”

Other planning commissioners were also not convinced.

“It just seems like $6.5 million is a whole lot of money,” Mills Staylor said.

But some supported the project.

“Suffolk needs its own,” Vice Chair Arthur Singleton said. “We need to be independent.”

Bennett said the sheriff’s office and a handful of personnel in the fire department also would use the range. He also pushed for an indoor range, saying it has a larger capacity than an outdoor range and is less likely to be affected by residential development nearby, which is often the death knell for shooting ranges once people complain, he said.

“Once that happens, it becomes a political issue, and we all know what happens,” he said.

Once they were done with the shooting range, the commissioners moved on and picked apart proposed projects such as a new downtown library and storage facilities for several departments.

Vacalis said he doesn’t see the need for a new library.

“Public libraries have become more of resource centers,” city Capital Projects and Buildings Director Gerry Jones said in response. “It’s outside your typical library model.”

Responding to a question about the plan to combine the new library with a community college component, Jones said the city will not be able to wait on the state to put the project in its pipeline, but it will plan as much flexibility in the building as possible.

Overall, Vacalis said he would rather redirect money from what he views as less important projects into transportation.

“We’ve got to catch up,” he said. “I can’t see any other priority greater than transportation right now. What’s more urgent, transportation or a storage facility?”

Staylor said he was concerned about the new debt the plan will require.

The capital improvements plan outlines the buildings, facilities, road projects and other large purchases, such as fire trucks, the city expects to need in the next 10 years and how it expects to pay for them. It is reviewed, updated and approved annually, and the first year of the plan is included in the budget proposal.

The first year of the plan includes about $70.9 million in projects. The first five years include $333 million in projects.

Commissioner Johnnie Edwards III joined Vacalis and Staylor in voting against forwarding the plan to City Council. It will be considered there on Feb. 1.