NORTH SMITHFIELD – After years of debate and discussion, town officials have yet to reach consensus on a project to address the need for replacement of the North Smithfield police station, or even how to achieve the temporary measures needed to maintain the station’s insurance coverage.
Municipal Buildings Review Task Force member Paul Vadenais says it is time to begin public outreach in preparation for a special election this spring, where voters will need to approve a $20 million bond to build a new facility where the old one now stands.
But as councilors heard the latest version of the plan on Wednesday, Feb. 15, some said the price tag was too high, and that the town needs a backup plan in case the bond fails.
Those who have followed discussions of the project for the past decade would note familiar political dividing lines that have stalled action for years, while costs for construction have continued to escalate.
“We can’t keep waiting to build a new building,” Vadenais said this week. “There is no other choice. You need to replace that building. The liability is huge.”
Vadenais’s statements followed a presentation by Jeff McElravy of Tecton Architects of the latest concept designs for a new station, to be built on the department’s existing site on Smithfield Road.
McElravy noted that the cost of construction has increased since his firm’s last presentation of a plan last year, which featured an estimated a price tag between $15 million and $16 million, a scaled-back version of an initial design from September of 2021 set at $18 million. The MBRTF ultimately recommended delaying the project last May, noting that post-pandemic price fluctuations had made it almost impossible to nail down a realistic cost.
On Wednesday, task force members renewed their appeal for action under a somewhat more stabilized market with a new estimate of $20 million.
“Costs have continued to escalate,” McElravy said.
The current plan, presented once again in part for the benefit of newly elected Councilors Paulette Hamilton and Douglas Osier, would see the building constructed behind and to left of the existing station, with a new public parking lot built in front. The current station – a repurposed former schoolhouse long deemed deficient by modern policing standards – would be demolished after construction and relocation of operations.
McElravy, who has worked on dozens of similar projects in other municipalities, noted the new layout will make it easier for members of the public to identify parking and entry, an important element when looking at design.
“Police stations can be a little bit intimidating,” McElravey said.
Those walking in to the new station would see dispatch straight ahead, with an office to the right of the entrance to handle records requests, and an interview room to the left. Public restrooms would also be at the front of the structure, adjacent to a new training/community room, where the town could also hold municipal court. The design plan for the two-story station showed space for offices, four holding cells, locker rooms, and a fitness center.
The design also included space for potential expansion, with a flat area above the municipal courtroom where an addition could accommodate future growth.
McElravey noted that actual construction of the station would cost $16.6 million, with the remainder of the funding set aside for elements such as engineering fees, equipment cost and a contingency fund.
“In the scale of construction, yours is not a large project,” McElravey said.
But first, the architect noted that the town will need to address immediate repairs to the current station identified by Interlocal Risk Management Trust. Last January, the trust notified town officials that they would no longer insure the building unless repair needs were addressed, and a plan put in place for an eventual replacement of the structure.
On Wednesday, Councilor John Beauregard questioned if operations could instead be housed in double- wide trailers while a new station is built.
“What I have a problem with is pouring new money into a building that we want to knock down,” Beauregard said.
But McElravey noted that, “Double-wides don’t make very good detention facilities.”
Beauregard said that rental of trailers costs around $3,000 a month, and the town could make a temporary arrangement with a neighboring department to serve as a holding facility.
McElravey said that such a temporary setup might be possible, but would need to take place at a different location.
“I think that would be too much to safely handle on the site,” he said.
MBRTF member David Chamberland said it could cost from $200,000 to $500,000 to get the trailers up and running. Still, he said, “It’s worth looking at.”
Osier questioned if a single-story building would cost less, disputing the assertion that it’s not a large project.
“That’s like, half the town’s budget,” Osier said. “It’s a big project.”
McElravey said there’s not enough space on the site to construct a single-story station while maintaining operations.
Others this week went over now familiar questions regarding location – and the need to build at all. Tecton told councilors in 2021 that it would cost only around $1 million more for new construction than it would to bring the current building up to modern standards.
“Really, at the end of the day, the numbers were pretty close,” McElravey said. “It really did justify the new construction option.”
Several questioned assertions by some members of the MBRTF that the current building has been deemed, “unsalvageable.”
“They’ve intentionally allowed the building to deteriorate in an attempt to convince you that the 2014 renovations can no longer be done,” resident Michael Clifford later asserted on social media. “We can spend a fraction of that amount for a complete renovation of the current station and it won’t be just a temporary repair. In 2016, the low bid for a full renovation came in at $3.2 million.”
But Beauregard noted that the building was never meant for its current purpose.
“It’s just not a police station,” Beauregard said. “It’s designed to be a school.”
MBRTF member Teresa Bartomioli said she felt the conversation wasn’t addressing concerns about those who currently have to work in the building.
“I think it’s time to think about them,” Bartomioli said. “We’ve never built a police station. I think it’s time that we really realize it’s time.”
“You can say ‘I support the police,’ but is $20 million the right price?” asked Osier in reply. “It’s not necessarily a black or white decision.”
Vadenais noted that the MBRTF, first appointed in 2016. has already looked at other sites and other layouts.
“I know that Halliwell is the elephant in the room,” Vadenais said of the town-owned property that once held an elementary school, noting the location was disqualified, in part, because it has only one form of egress and sits at the bottom of hill. “That was all done over two years ago.”
Vadenais said it will be easier to address the department’s immediate needs if a bond goes out to vote in late spring.
“We would know if the bond passed or not,” he said. “May or June is an opportune time. One determines other. It’s all contingent on knowing what we’re doing in the future.”
Vadenais noted that the bond would come with an increase of around $260 a year on the average single family home, but that number would soon decrease with the town on track to retire debt of $27 million by 2028.
“It’s kind of lining up in a nice position,” Vadenais said, adding that, “I really believe that it will pass because people know the condition of that building.”
But Hamilton noted that her taxes went up $1,000 following the town’s recent revaluation.
“What’s our fall back if it fails for any reason? she asked.
Councilor Kimberly Alves also remained unconvinced.
“I just think this station is way too big for our community,” Alves said, pointing to smaller police stations in similar-sized communities. “There’s a lot of fluff in this police station.”
Beauregard noted that due to Dowling Village and the town’s proximity to Woonsocket, North Smithfield sees more action and arrests than most similarly-sized communities. Police Chief Tim Lafferty, who was not present for this week’s discussion, has pointed to North Smithfield’s high number of calls and arrests as the reason for the department’s space needs.
“I think it might be a little misleading going just by population,” Beauregard said, adding of the experienced architectural firm, “If they say this is the way to go, in my experience, this is it.”
Osier, however, agreed with the idea that the plan still needs to be scaled back.
“It’s a lot of money and I think we could cut something,” he said.
“We don’t want to build something that’s inadequate from day one,” Vadenais replied.
Hamilton recounted the history of the project, and the results of past attempts to renovate the building.
In 2014, voters approved $5 million for renovation to the current station as part of a $12 million bond that also addressed other needs in town. But in 2016, a new council took over and, “Everything stopped,” Hamilton said.
“The money that was supposed to be spent on bringing that build up to code in 2016 is being used just to keep it alive,” Hamilton said. “They asked for the renovation. We gave them nothing.”
Vadenais repeated the often-cited response used to justify the change in direction eight years ago.
“The funds never matched the scope,” Vadenais said. “Now, we have what we believe is a firm number.”
Still, Hamilton questioned if the bond will pass – considering the town’s past record on delivery.
“We can’t force people to do it,” she said. “We have to have a rational backup plan.”
Alves, Hamilton and Osier all asked for time to check in with bond counsel on how a new $20 million loan will affect the town’s finances.
“We have to do our due diligence,” Hamilton said, thanking the MBRTF and Tecton officials for their work. “It isn’t casting dispersions on anyone.”
“I want people to know we did the best we could to vet out the best price,” Alves said. “Is it going to pass at this price tag? That’s what we’re concerned about. I think we should be prepared.”
The council is expected to discuss the project once again on Thursday, March 9, with Tecton to present options for a single-story building as wells as a two-story structure with reduced square footage.