NORTH SMITHFIELD – In a three-hour hearing that included some rehashing of past attempts to get a project underway, members of the North Smithfield Town Council heard reactions from several residents last week on a conceptual design for a new police station that would cost the town an estimated $18 million.
The hearing, focused on design plans presented by Tecton Architects in September, brought out testimony from less than a dozen residents, but opinions varied on how to best move forward.
In the end, while there seemed to be a general consensus that a new station is needed, many questions remain as to where and if the plan will be scaled back, and how it will be put before voters as a ballot question next year.
Setting the initial tone were comments from Council President John Beauregard and Vice President Kimberly Alves, which focused on potential reductions in the proposal with the goal of bringing down costs.
“I support a new police station 100 percent,” said Beauregard. “However, I don’t think a new police station at the price that’s being presented to us is necessarily the way to go.”
“To be very blunt, I’m trying to save the project, because $18 million… I don’t think the voters will go for it,” he added.
Beauregard pointed to a plan to establish municipal court in the new building, and the price tags on everything from furniture, to the judge’s chambers, that would accompany it.
Currently, municipal court is held in Scouter’s Hall, an arrangement Police Chief Tim Lafferty has said is not ideal.
“That would all, I think, add to the cost cutting,” Beauregard said of eliminating the court from design plans.
Alves questioned items in the proposal including extra bathrooms, lockers and detention cells.
“I think it’s a little overkill – sorry chief – to have a restroom in the chief’s office,” she said.
Many, including Alves, offered comparisons to neighboring towns, pointing to smaller stations serving municipalities with less of a population. And several residents echoed the assessment that while a new station is needed, the price tag cited is too high.
“I do agree that the police department is in disrepair and in need of an upgrade or replacement,” said Ana Parsons. “The proposal does seem a bit excessive. As is, it is not the best for the town or the taxpayers.”
At the first presentation of his firm’s analysis in September, Tecton Principal Jeff McElravy said that renovation of the current police headquarters – a two-story former school that has long needed repairs – would cost only slightly less than demolishing the building to construct something new. The firm gave strong recommendation against a proposed renovation plan costing $17.5 million
This week, McElravy said much of that renovation cost is due to standards not met by the current headquarters, such as a holding area for detainees that people can easily walk by.
“That exposes you to liability,” he said.
“Buildings like that are essential services, and that means they must withstand events when the rest of the community is challenged,” McElravy said.
Lafferty said that he believes any plan for renovation would be inadequate.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that that’s the choice you need to make,” Lafferty said of the initiative to demolish the building and build from scratch. “It turns into a money pit.”
“We need a new building,” the chief said.
Lafferty, who noted that he’s been involved with efforts aimed at improving the station since he was a captain in 2013, described the current proposal not as a, “wish list,” but rather the spending that’s needed to adequately meet the needs of his department.
“A department this size with this population – this is what they should have,” Lafferty said. “You have to understand that it’s a conception of the future, not just right now.”
The chief noted that while North Smithfield has a small department in terms of staff, arrests are on par with that of a much larger town – totaling 639 in 2020. Cumberland, by comparison, had 456, according to Lafferty.
Lafferty also questioned the wisdom of holding court in Scouter’s Hall.
“Sometimes we’ll have up to 100 people come to municipal court,” he said. “Is it functional? Yes. Is it the best face North Smithfield can have for a municipal court? No.”
“There’s some safety concerns,” Lafferty said.
Resident Douglas Osier noted that documents presented by Tecton did not demonstrate why such a large facility is needed.
“The data itself does not justify the need for a building of this size,” Osier said. “At the end of the day, this is ultimately a business decision with long term consequences for the community.”
A few residents questioned the need for leaving the station at its current location on Smithfield Road. In the years the issue has been discussed, law enforcement officials in town have repeated the request that headquarters remain at the current property, due to its proximity to areas officers must frequent, such as Dowling Village.
“I fully agree we do need a new building but there could be one more option that we’re missing out on,” said Jeffrey Porter, pointing to the idea of a public safety complex. “We have a multitude of town buildings that need maintenance and repair.”
Porter suggested that $1.2 million – money to improve the station approved by voters as part of a $12 million bond passed in 2014 – could be used for temporary improvements to the building so the idea could be studied further.
“It could be worthwhile just to pause,” Porter said, adding that the cost of new construction did not surprise him due to his work as a project manager. “I didn’t even flinch when they said $18 million. Construction costs have certainly changed drastically since 2014.”
Resident Ann Lilley also suggested that the station could be moved.
“I think we need to think in a bigger picture kind of way,” said Lilley, pointing to other potentially costly projects on the horizon, such as the effort to reuse the former Halliwell Elementary School.
“We can’t afford $18 million,” Lilley said, adding of the design plan, “I have a problem seeing a gym for police officers when our seniors can’t work out.”
Resident Mike Rapko said councilors should put multiple questions before voters, so they can choose the best potential plan. Alves, however, noted that legal counsel recommended placing only one ballot question for the bond on the ballot to avoid the possibility of confusion and overlapping responses.
Others last week presented various versions of the project history, including a timeline in favor of a new build read in a letter from former Town Administrator Gary Ezovski.
Resident Anthony Guertin repeated the often-heard criticism of the previous bond, which aimed to renovate the building.
“Any belief we’d get anywhere near what we promised voters was just not credible,” Guertin said, bringing out news stories from 2016. “The bond was extremely flawed before it ever went out.”
“I’m a proponent of the concept of a new police station,” Guertin said.
Councilor Paul Vadenais said the board hopes to look at the possibility of getting funding for the project in the form of infrastructure grants. The public, Vadenais said, will have many more chances to weigh in.
“There will be a lot of public hearings,” Vadenais said. “We can’t put numbers out there until we know where we’re going. The price tag hasn’t been determined.”
Beauregard noted that that council must soon decide what to place on the ballot, so the question can get approval from the General Assembly.
“There’s a lot of information we have to take in,” Beauregard said