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City leaders zero in on future scope of police HQ

Merced College president suggests site near campus

The Merced City Council held a special meeting this week to review a “needs assessment” for a new police headquarters to serve law enforcement officers and residents as the population grows and the town expands into the future.

From a planning perspective, it was the most serious meeting yet in an overall discussion that’s gone on for more than a decade, mostly driven by the hot-button topic of what part of the city is the best place to put a police headquarters.

That said, the intrigue continued at City Hall on Monday night when the Merced College President Chris Vitelli spoke about the possibility of creating a new police headquarters on available vacant land near M Street and W. Cardella Road.

Vitelli said it would fit in perfectly with the college’s facilities buildout plan that includes more law enforcement training areas to complement existing programs. He also mentioned possible grant funding for development.

It was a surprising twist to the talks; however, in the end, city leaders carefully stepped around the “location, location, location” issue, and even how the station would be funded.

Instead, they focused in on the size and scope of what exactly is needed.

Council members decided to move forward with a “centralized,” full-service main station that would be able to house up to 154 sworn officers, and 55 other staff members. That’s about a 50 percent increase from the 98 sworn officer positions currently in the department.

The growth is based on a population estimate of 122,000 people that could be seen at some point within the next 20 years. Merced has a population of about 84,000 today.

Leaders agreed the building space would be anywhere from 66,000 square feet to nearly 80,000 square feet, with the possibility of a separate, onsite “support structure” for evidence storage and other non-essential purposes. The cost is hovering around $45 million; however, that still depends on when the facility(s) actually get built.

“The more prepared we are, the more better positioned we are to get something passed by the voters as well as receive help from Sacramento,” Mayor Mike Murphy told his colleagues. “A centralized model is what we are hearing is the right way to go from our professionals — both in-house and our consultants. At the same time, I’m not willing to walk away from having investments in our neighborhoods. We want to balance these needs.”

Yes, there was some debate among council members about not having a centralized station model, and instead developing significant “substations” in the north, central and south areas of the city. Councilmen Matt Serratto, Fernando Echevarria, and Anthony Martinez all voiced concern about a centralized police station, particularly if it’s located to the north, where the city is sprawling toward UC Merced.

Serratto pointed out that a large portion of voters would not support a much-needed bond measure to finance the headquarters if a centralized northern location was chosen.

“Constituents would much rather prefer substations … in the south and the downtown core,” he said. “There’s a huge perception that the downtown core isn’t safe, and the south side isn’t safe. … If we take a police headquarters to the north, how are they going to vote?”

Councilman Martinez interjected and flat out said he would not support a move, for example, to the suggested location near Merced College.

Police Chief Chris Goodwin spoke up and expressed the need to educate people on what the police department does with regard to community interaction. He said nearly all of it does not happen inside the police headquarters. First of all, he said, police patrols are equally distributed throughout the city at any given hour of the day. It doesn’t matter what station they drive out from. He also mentioned a variety of ways police officers engage with the community at events, forums, town halls, the Citizens Academy, Neighborhood Watch meetings, etc.

“I think it’s one building,” Goodwin said when asked how he would prefer the headquarters to be shaped. “The reason is everything is there in one place.”

He said a centralized location will increase communication between officers, especially before and after shifts. He pointed out evidence would be housed in one place, and employees would have ample protected parking.

This week’s meeting also brought in architect and financing consultants who presented various options of what a new main station would feature inside and out, as well as financing options. A community/conference room, shared Starbuck-like spaces for report writing, expanded locker room space, spacious and secured parking, and room for growth to expand evidence storage, perhaps in a separate, onsite facility.

Nevertheless, Chief Goodwin and the rest of the council members all expressed favorable views about future police “outposts” or “storefronts” where residents living in various areas or neighborhoods of the city could go to reach out to law enforcement with concerns, to request reports and share information.

The idea was also expounded on at the meeting by none other than Casey Steed — a former local political candidate and a current local radio talk show host who critiques city government on air and often attends public meetings to voice his opinions.

“I think you should go with a central station and have community store fronts where people can do reports,” he advised the council. “The president of Merced College gave you a gift tonight. You have an entity that’s been in town since 1962 that has a lot of land. We have to look to 2025 and beyond, and that will be the central part of town. The university is the anchor now. It’s not Castle anymore.

Merced College is your answer.”

Former City Council member Michael Belluomini also spoke up during public comment and urged city leaders to try and get a bond measure for the police station on the November 2020 ballot so they can avoid rising construction costs. Mayor Murphy later explained that leaders and city staff members are also focused on a bond measure for extending Measure C which supports police and fire staffing. He said if both bond measures are put forth in 2020, “it would likely lead to the demise of both.”

Councilman Serratto suggested a police and fire facilities bond be put on the ballot in 2022.

The City Council directed staff to work with their consultants and come up with cost estimates and site ideas with regard to a “centralized” main headquarters. Feedback is expected within about two months.

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