The City Council is in negotiations to sell the site of the new police headquarters. This is a profound mistake that will reduce public safety, increase costs, and divide the city regarding police-community relations.
For 20 years, the prior city councils have recognized a serious need for a new police station, planned for it and purchased sites, deciding on the one near Olive Avenue and G Street, formerly the Merced Sun-Star newspaper building site.
The existing police station at the corner of West 22nd Street and M Street was small even after the second story was added in 1980. Forty years later with a near doubling of city population and increased staff, it is inadequate with cramped spaces, insufficient offices/workrooms, noncompliant with handicap access, unwelcoming/unaccommodating to visitors, insufficient parking, evidence storage, document storage, and equipment/supplies storage.
Even the Grand Jury years ago found that the police station was inadequate. Police chiefs have stated that the station is inadequate and makes it more difficult to recruit and retain new police officers when competing cities have better facilities. In 2019, architects specializing in police station design assessed the existing station as very inadequate in size and facilities. These architects were hired by the city to review the existing station and interview police staff as the first step in designing a new station to best serve the needs of Merced. If plans were prepared for a new station, then the city would be ready to seek state and federal funding to help pay for the station. The council did not have plans prepared.
Selling the Sun-Star site only delays the inevitable need to build a new station. When a future council decides to build a new police headquarters the cost will be significantly higher (increasing at about $2 million annually) and a centrally located site will not be economically available. The result may be that the new station is located far to the north nearer the UC, such as on the eight acre site owned by the city at M Street. and Cardella Road. This would be a disservice to “old” Merced because it is so far from much of the city and its residents. Such a location will further increase the sense of division between north and south Merced, negatively affecting police-community relations.
Architects specializing in police stations have told the city that a new police station will require five acres with parking for 350 vehicles and a 50,000 sq. ft. building. The Sun Star site is five acres. It is in the center of the Merced of 2060 — half way between Old Lake Road and Mission Avenue and half way between Lake Road. and Highway 59. No assembling of many parcels through eminent domain/condemnation is required. It has good access to G Street and Olive Avenue once the median island on G Street is removed and replaced with traffic control lane striping on the road. It is easily accessible by bus, bicycle, walking, and automobile.
In 2018, a public opinion survey found that 61 percent of Merced voters would approve a general obligation property tax of $68 per $100,000 of assessed property value to build a police station. This strong level of support existed even though no education of the public regarding the inadequate and dilapidated condition of the existing station occurred, and even though the tax amount surveyed was wrong, the correct amount was $39 per $100,000. The $45 million bond under discussion at that time would have built a new police station plus two new fire stations to serve rapidly growing northeast and southeast Merced which are much farther from fire stations than other areas of the city. The percentage needed to approve such a tax is 67 percent so an increase of 6 percent more voter approval was needed. There is a high probability that with informative education of the public by the city and a positive campaign by citizens, such a tax would have been approved in November 2018. If so, we would have a new police headquarters station and two new fire stations operating today.
What is needed is city council leadership that builds on the past planning for a police station rather than delaying the decision, and a council that educates the public regarding the need and the planned solution and then puts the question before the voters to decide what to do.
This will require faith in the citizens of Merced to do what is needed and courage to educate them about the need and the solution.
Michael Belluomini is a local resident and a former member of the Merced City Council.