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Bel Air to hold hearing Monday on tax rate implications of new police department facility

The Town of Bel Air will hold a public hearing Monday to solicit comments about the tax rate increase that will be necessary if a new space for Bel Air Police Department is built.
The Town of Bel Air will hold a public hearing Monday to solicit comments about the tax rate increase that will be necessary if a new space for Bel Air Police Department is built. (Erika Butler / Aegis file)

The Town of Bel Air cannot build a new police department facility without raising its tax rate, and before the town moves forward with the project, leaders want to make sure residents are aware of that.

“Our tax rate and our budget are bare bones,” Town Administrator Jesse Bane said. “There is no way we can muster anything out of our existing revenue stream to be able to build a facility.”

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In the last year of discussions of the police department building, residents have generally agreed a new space is needed to replace the aging facility attached to Town Hall on North Hickory Avenue, and that what’s there is “woefully lacking” for officers to do the job properly, Bane said.

A proposed Bel Air budget for fiscal 2020, with no tax increases and no cuts in services, was presented to the Board of Town Commissioners Monday evening.

But Commissioner Patrick Richards said he and others want to make every effort to make sure they know that along with a new facility comes a tax rate increase.

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“I’m a firm believer we need to reach the public in multiple ways,” Richards said.

In addition to a mailer to every property owner in town, the commissioners will host a public hearing at 7:30 p.m. Monday at town hall to get additional input on the project. Those come after another public hearing to share the three options for a new department space and an open house to show residents and taxpayers how bad existing offices are, Bane said.

Among the three options presented to the public during a workshop last November, two options called for renovating and expanding the existing building and a third called for a new standalone facility.

While none of the three options has been chosen, the town is leaning toward a 19,000-square foot, two-story addition to the existing town hall and police department building that is estimated to cost $8 million to $8.5 million, with a debt service payment of about $500,000 a year, Bane said.

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It would require a tax rate increase of 5 cents, he said, from 50 cents per $100 of assessed value to 55 cents per $100. The last time the tax rate went up was in 2004.

It is not the least expensive option, but the one that, in addition to a new police space, will allow the town to move its IT department into the town hall building.

The cheapest option would necessitate tax rate increase of 3.5 cents to 4 cents, he said.

A penny on the tax rate generates about $150,000 revenue for the town, Bane said.

The annual average cost to the residential taxpayer in town would be about $98 if the rate went up 5 cents and $78 if it went up 4 cents.

More input needed

In its efforts so far, town officials have received minimal public input. “That’s part of my concern,” Richards said.

For residents who can’t make Monday’s hearing, commissioners offered chances to speak at regular town meetings or to give feedback online.

One woman spoke at Monday’s commissioners meeting and acknowledged a police facility needs to be built and she accepted a tax rate increase to do it.

“She’s a senior citizen and realized her tax increase would amount to less than $100,” Bane said. “She felt it was a fair price to pay and urged the commissioners to move forward with the project.”

Resident Fran Johnson told the commissioners Monday raising taxes to pay for a new police headquarters was a “fiscally responsible thing to do, and this is the time to do it.”

The town has also received five responses online.

That few people have opposed the project indicates to Bane the public approves of the project and the tax increase.

“It’s been my experience in 46 years in public service when people are upset about something, we get letters, phone calls, emails and turnout at public hearings,” Bane said. “We don’t have that here.”

There’s no question the public knows a new police space is needed, Richards said.

“Everybody who tours the police department realizes it’s out of date, they need more space,” he said. “That’s not the question at all.”

What he struggles with is if the plan is appropriate for the cost, is it the right solution or should the town look at other options.

The three options for a new space for Bel Air Police Department — two are renovations and expansion of the existing building and one a new, free-standing building — are expected to cost between $8.5 million and $11.4 million.

“I’m convinced we need more space for the police department, but I’m not convinced this is the right proposal,” Richards said. “Do we need to keep searching?”

He suggested trimming the proposal before the town, “adaptive reuse” of the existing building or continuing to search for space to lease as alternatives.

“Could we and should we continue looking for other options but continuing to reinforce to the police department that we’re continuing to find them the space they need?” Richards said.

As many times as the town has reached out and given the lack of much feedback, the commissioners “have to draw some conclusion,” he said.

“Through meetings, the emails, the prior meetings we’ve had and other discussions, it certainly has been on the collective radar,” Richards said. “With not much turnout, not much feedback, perhaps people aren’t as concerned as I think they should be.”

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