Bel Air officials are confident they have the support of most residents to begin moving forward with a new space for the police department, which will come with the town’s first tax rate increase in 15 years.
The town commissioners hosted a public hearing Monday to solicit comments from residents and make sure they are aware the police department project can’t be done without raising taxes.
“I would say we are [ready to move forward]. We’ve certainly reached as much of the public as we can,” Mayor Susan Burdette said. “From Monday’s hearing, and people I have talked to, almost everyone has been for the police department. They understand the conditions and I really, personally, haven’t heard anyone who could not take a tax increase.”
Town Administrator Jesse Bane said Wednesday the tax rate, which last went up in 2004, could go up as much as 5 cents per $100 of assessed value, but an increase of 3 to 4 cents is more likely.
Burdette said four of the five commissioners are ready for the next step — she hasn’t spoken with Commissioner Patrick Richards, who was out of town for Monday’s hearing, and she didn’t want to speak for him.
Bane said the police department committee is preparing its final report, which should be presented to the commissioners at their next work session, on April 23, after which the commissioners can vote to move forward.
He anticipates it would be 12 to 18 months once the commissioners give the go-ahead before any construction begins.
Before that can start, the town needs the actual plans drawn for the building addition — the town has been using conceptual plans so far — and work on financing options, Bane said.
Public offers support
Over 50 people attended Monday’s public hearing at the Bel Air Armory, 16 of whom spoke, Bane said.
“Most of them said it is needed, it is necessary. While no one wants to see taxes increase, they said do what you have to do to get it done,” Bane said.
Many residents had positive comments for the police department, he added. “We walked away knowing people who live in the Town of Bel Air are very happy with their police department.”
Committee members are looking over concept plans again to see if the proposed 20,000-square-foot, two-story addition to the existing town hall and police department building could be pared down.
The committee is also exploring grant possibilities for the addition, estimated to cost $8 million to $8.5 million, with a debt service payment of about $500,000 a year, to keep the increase as low as possible, Bane said.
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.
Long-term, with the amount of development going on in town, the tax rate could go down if revenues from regular town operations and taxes are higher then projected.
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.
Absorbed by the Sheriff’s Office
At least two people have questioned whether policing in the town could be taken over by the Harford County Sheriff’s Office to avoid having to build a new facility.
Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler’s reply, to both, was that it would require more study.
“Some things, such as the need for multiple police stations, seem obvious, but much more research would be needed to see if there are truly cost savings to local capital budgets,” Gahler wrote in his reply.
One person sent a letter to the town commissioners and another emailed Gahler, according to documents provided by the Sheriff’s Office. The names of the residents were redacted.
“While I do believe the current facility has some real issues and needs to be redone to fix things such as water leaks, I wonder if there is not a greater question,” a resident wrote in the email. “Does Bel Air really need its own police department? It would seem to me that it would be more efficient to have the Harford County Sheriff’s Office take over the department and there would be considerable cost savings.”
In the email, the resident asked if the possibility had been discussed.
“This seems to be to be the time consider it if a new building is being proposed that is going to cost over $10 million,” the email said.
In a letter to town commissioners, a resident suggested merging the town department with the sheriff’s office.
“This would result in a win-win situation for both of these fine agencies,” the resident said. “This melding of agencies bring rich rewards on both sides.”
Bel Air town officers, the writer said, would be able to concentrate on the area they’re most familiar with. They would also have access to the resources of the Sheriff’s Office.
“The taxpayer benefits from tax increases and the vast resources both departments together bring to quality and efficient law enforcement,” the letter states.
No jobs, pensions, ranks or benefits would be altered.
“I believe this represents a sensible solution to the physical plant issue while at the same time gives Bel Air the addition of resources that might not have previously been available,” the resident wrote.
Bane, who was sheriff for eight years and a sheriff’s deputy 36 years before that, said it’s not as simple as combining the two agencies.
The Sheriff’s Office would still need the space for the 32 officers from the Bel Air department, and would have to subsidize the Bel Air officers’ salaries to be on par with the Sheriff’s Office, which the town would have to pay for, Bane said.
“If we’re giving up responsibility to police the town, the town will pay for what it is the town needs,” he said.