Bel Air’s town commissioners are again discussing the need for a new space for the Bel Air Police Department with greater more urgency this time.
And at least one commissioner is willing to raise taxes — as a last resort — to get it done.
“I honestly don’t think we have a choice. No one wants to spend millions on a building we don’t need, but for something we need — that’s 10 to 15 years past due — I don’t really think it’s a choice, if you ask me,” Commissioner Brendan Hopkins said Monday. “If we have no other option and we have to provide officers with what they need to go out on the streets, then yes, absolutely [we could raise taxes]. Nobody wants to see a tax increase, but if we have to, then we have to.”
Bel Air’s tax rate of 50 cents per $100 of assessed value has been the same since 2004, when it was increased from 44 cents per $100 of assessed value, according to Lisa Moody, town finance director.
Hopkins cited a slew of issues with the existing space, which is in the basement of Bel Air Town Hall, saying that police officers need to have more space for all the tools they need and “not just the ones on their belts” in order to be able to do their jobs.
“It’s kind of embarrassing, in a sense,” said Hopkins, a former Harford County Sheriff’s Office deputy, who was an Explorer with the town police department in the mid-1990s. “We ask a lot of our officers and we want to give them everything we can give them to perform their job.”
A decade ago, a previous group of commissioners discussed either building a new police department building or expanding town hall to create more space for the department. The police and other town offices share the 53-year-old town hall on Hickory Avenue.
The previous project was abandoned, however, because of the cost, estimated then at $5 million to $10 million, would likely have led to a tax increase, opponents had said.
Similar options are being considered this time, and the town is in the process of hiring an architectural firm to complete a feasibility study, Town Administrator Jesse Bane said.
Of the six firms that responded to a request for proposals sent out in early December, a town committee asked two to come back with a proposal and price to do the study, Bane said. They are being reviewed this week, and he hopes to have the commissioners approve one of the two firms at the next town meeting on Feb. 20.
The town gave the architecture firms three options to consider: add to the existing town hall/police department building; build a separate police facility next door on the property at the corner of Lee Street and Hickory Avenue; and look at other properties the town owns and see if it’s feasible to build elsewhere, Bane said. One of the sites large enough to accommodate a building that size is the town’s lot across from the Bel Air Library.
Ideally though, Hopkins said, he’d like the new facility to be next door to the current building, to offer the ability to walk from the town administration building to the police department or vice-versa.
“Having a police department next to town hall ... is going to end up being the best solution for us,” Mayor Susan Burdette said.
When she became a commissioner in November 2015, then-Chief Leo Matrangola took her on a tour of the offices and “the first thing he did was pout out all the inadequacies,” Burdette said.
“I think we really need to do something. It’s not going to get better and there’s no other alternatives,” she said.
“Something has to be done for the police department. It is not adequate for the requirements of a modern-day police facility,” Bane said.
When the building was designed in the early 1960s, the town had 12 officers, a dispatcher and support staff. Today, the agency has 31 officers and a support staff, which has also grown as the town and police department have grown, Bane said.
Hopkins said there is mold where evidence is stored. It’s abated but then it just comes back — it’s a continuous cycle, he said.
Three people are crammed into offices the size of closets, the prisoner holding and processing areas are small and don’t necessarily meet the juvenile and adult “sight and sound” restrictions, Hopkins said. The furniture is mismatched, the training and roll call rooms are cramped, and the department has no intoximeter (to determine blood alcohol levels) and has no place to safely test any drugs that are seized.
“It’s definitely a cost issue, but the longer we wait, the more disservice were are doing the our police officers and our citizens. We need a new building,” Hopkins said.
If the commissioners choose not to move forward with a new facility, the challenge will be how the town deals with the existing facility, Bane said.
Bane was sheriff when the Harford County Sheriff’s Office built the southern precinct in Joppatowne, which cost about $8 million, he said. That facility is much larger than what Bel Air Police Department would need.
“If the cost to expand town hall was shelved because it was going to cost about $10 million; I think we can come in way under that,” Bane said. “If something isn’t done ... at some point, a liability issue could arise from inadequate police facilities.”
If a new, separate facility was built for the police department, the town government could take over the rest of the existing building, where the main floor recently underwent renovations (primarily to improve security), Bane said.
The economic development and IT offices that are in the Bel Air Armory could move to town hall, as could the administrative functions of the public works and planning departments, Bane said, so they’re all under one roof.
DPW operations will have to stay at the shop on Churchville Road, he said, but permitting and other functions could move to downtown.
Once a firm is hired, the feasibility study could take three to four months, possibly six, Bane said. Then the town will have to determine how to finance the project.
There could be an option to have a builder/developer build the building and then lease it to the town, with an option after a number of years to either buy the building or continue to lease it, Bane said.
“The town is financially strong. The town has been very conservative in its budget approach, holding the line on taxes. It has very little debt,” Bane said. “We’d like to continue that mode, to have it be our guiding principle as we move along and come up with creative ways to finance the project.”
Once the commissioners decide what to do, Bane said, he would like construction to start as quickly as possible.
“If everything goes the way I like, in two to three years we could have a completed building or be close,” Bane said. It’s possible ground could be broken as soon as next spring, he said.