NORTH SMITHFIELD – The Rhode Island Interlocal Risk Management Trust will no longer insure the building that houses the North Smithfield Police Department if the town doesn’t act quickly to complete a list of needed repairs, according to a letter sent this month to Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski.
The letter, which comes as councilors mull over potential plans to build new police headquarters, notes that a recent survey of the building at 575 Smithfield Road, “put the insurability of the structure in question.”
“In essence, the trust has concerns on if they want to insure this building,” Zwolenski said during a joint meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 19 between the Town Council and the Municipal Buildings Review Task Force that’s been working on the project.
To maintain coverage, within 30 days the town must consult with a structural engineer to determine if the building is structurally sound and suitable for its current use; secure the area in front to prevent the likelihood that someone would be injured from falling debris; and secure or remove the tower .
Within 90 days, the town must develop a plan to renovate or replace the existing building, notes the communication from the trust’s Director of Property and Casualty Underwriting Brad Weaver.
The letter lists specific concerns including the roof, windows, masonry, walkways and more, which all must be addressed in any plan to renovate the structure.
While the list of building deficiencies came as no surprise to those familiar with the property, the deadlines add urgency to a project that has stalled for years. The town had initially hoped to repair police headquarters with a portion of the $12 million bond passed by voters in 2014, but MBRTF members have said the funding was never enough to cover what’s needed.
And in September, a consultant hired to look at the project said that construction of a brand new building would cost just $800,000 more than renovation of the existing structure. Tecton Architects presented a report stating that a complete renovation of the building that once held the Bushee School to create a modern police station would cost $17.5 million, while new construction would cost $18.3 million.
Task Force members have recommended demolition of the former school and construction of the new police headquarters at the same Smithfield Road location.
Councilors have since asked that they look at ways to reduce the price tag, and options presented this week imagined costs reduced to between $15 million and $16 million, with a decrease in square footage and removal of municipal court facilities.
Requests that officials take a second look at alternative locations brought back some familiar responses, along with a few new ones.
“Our hot spot is that part of town. That’s where a lot of our calls are,” said Chief Tim Lafferty, noting that Woonsocket has no supermarkets. “You have a 50,000 population that shops in North Smithfield on a daily basis.”
Plus, Lafferty added, with the old building set to stay open until the new one is ready, “When you transition to the new building it make so much more sense.”
Tecton Principal Jeff McElravy pointed to other concerns, including the need for multiple exits and the fact that as an essential facility, a police station must stay open even in weather events and should not be built in a flood zone such as the former Halliwell Elementary School property.
Lafferty pointed out that police in North Smithfield have always been relegated to reused buildings not well suited for their work.
“We’ve never had a police station,” he said. “The building is embarrassing. We can’t even use half of our building due to asbestos.”
“I just look at it as an investment – not for Chief Tim Lafferty and the men and women that work right now. It’s for the the men and women that work in law enforcement going forward and every chief after me,” Lafferty said. “It’s unfortunate, the cost.”
“By the time it’s shovel ready maybe things will get better,” the chief added. “It’s a cost, I get it. But sometimes you have to have the courage to say this is what we have to do.”
Councilor Paul Vadenais, who also serves on the task force, said that the project could have a minimal impact on the tax rate as several town bonds are set to expire over the next several years. And once it’s complete, “You’re looking at a 50 year building. You’re building for the future,” Vadenais said.
However they move forward, councilors will need to act soon. A clock on the project was ticking even before the 90 day notice: in order to have work underway within the next few years the General Assembly will have to approve a bond question to go before voters next November.
For his part, Zwolenski said he’s hopeful the board will act quickly.
“This committee has been very thorough in its approach to giving advice to this town,” Zwolenski said of the MBRTF. “I hope they are paid attention to, and the council moves forward on a decision on what we’re going to do with this station.”