Plans to study the building of a third district police station in Howard County were approved by the County Council last week as part of the council's budget vote.
The full-service station, which will supplement the department's Southern District station in North Laurel and Northern District station – which is also the headquarters – in Ellicott City, will likely be located somewhere in Columbia, according to police chief Bill McMahon.
"In my mind, it makes sense to have a major presence somewhere in Columbia," McMahon said.
"When we look at the growth over the next 20 to 30 years in downtown Columbia, we need to have a physical presence there," he said. "Part of my job is to forecast, and this is something we've identified for a couple years that we will have to consider. Now is the time to do more than consider."
County Executive Ken Ulman, who carved out $100,000 in the approved fiscal year 2015 capital budget to begin studying the project, agrees.
"I do believe that we are going to need a third district at some point in the near future," Ulman said in an interview about the budget. "When we look geographically, Columbia — specifically West Columbia -- would make some sense."
The $100,000 will fund a study that will provide a comprehensive analysis of the department's operations as well as examine potential sites for the district station.
McMahon, who is retiring in June, said the department needs the third station for two reasons: to keep up with the population growth in the county and to help consolidate some of the department's existing operations, which he said is beginning to sprawl between Ellicott City and North Laurel.
"We are just running out of space," he said. "We have officers working and employees working in meeting rooms, doubling up in spaces, and we use a fair amount of lease space."
Ulman echoed McMahon, saying that the department is "bursting at the seams."
McMahon said the department has 458 sworn officers and 191 full-time civilian employees. He said the department has added 73 officers in the past seven years and that the 2015 budget will continue that trend by adding 14 new officers and four new civilian employees.
As an ambitious plan for downtown in Columbia begins to take shape, McMahon said, the department will need to continue to grow.
"The redevelopment of downtown Columbia is going to change a lot of how we police in that area, over the next five to 10 years," McMahon said. "One of the challenges for us is making sure we aren't getting complacent and that we are well prepared to meet those needs."
A revitalization effort laid out by the Downtown Columbia Plan promises to bring 13 million square feet of office, residential, civic and other uses to Columbia's Town Center in the coming decades. With the first projects nearing completion, including a 380-unit apartment complex called the Metropolitan expected to open later this year, McMahon said now is the time to start planning the project.
McMahon said the creation of an urban atmosphere will require the department to make changes, which could include more foot and bike patrols, and even Segway patrols.
The new full-service station shouldn't affect the department's seven satellite stations, five of which are in Columbia.
Ulman's capital budget proposal to the County Council laid out a financing plan for the project that would pledge $19.3 million in capital funds for the station through 2020.