“All of it is really about money: How are we going to make a decision about paying for this? To me, it almost always comes back to sales tax,” Jacksonville Mayor Johnny Smith said. “You’ve got to have hearings and give the public a chance to express their concerns, which they’re going to have … what makes it an easier sell is people are willing to support public safety.”
And public safety officials say support is something they desperately need when it comes to the plans for a modern safety complex.
The city Fire Department building dates to the 1980s; the building where police work and inmates are housed was new circa 1936, and both violate dozens of public safety codes and Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, law-enforcement officials said.
“It can’t be overstated how important our infrastructure is to be able to respond to natural disaster, and our facilities are our most important things,” Fire Chief Wade Buckner said. “We’ve done the needs assessment … our buildings right now are totally inefficient. We’ve done a lot to try to upgrade what we can, but there’s only so much we can do.”
Jacksonville police Chief Tommy Thompson said the police and fire departments have been urging council members to finalize plans for a new public safety complex for nearly two years now.
The council took its first step forward when in February council members unanimously agreed to pay $22,950 to Architects Design Group – a Florida architecture firm that specializes in public safety complexes – to study the current city facilities and present their preliminary plans for a new one to the council.
But after that study, plans stalled and police officials fretted that the council was missing a prime opportunity to get started on a project they consider to be both necessary and a priority.
“So I wrote them a letter challenging them to move forward with the project,” Thompson said.
The result was today’s meeting, where council members agreed the new complex should be built on a plot of land behind the Jacksonville Walmart near Eagle Crest Boulevard Southwest.
City leaders also agreed Architects Design Group should be the firm used for the project. But the mayor noted the council needed to first ensure it could back out of a contract it made with a Gadsden firm two years ago, when members first began to discuss building a new fire station.
“There are some concerns about getting out of that contract. I think there is some out in the fact we are now doing a different type and style of building,” Smith said. “But that is one of the hurdles we have to deal with immediately.”
Other than that, Smith said, the only hurdle standing in the way of final plans is funding.
At the meeting, council members agreed that a 1 percent sales tax increase was the most logical way to go.
“I agree the sales tax would be the easiest and quickest way,” Councilman Truman Norred said. As a member of the council’s public safety committee, Norred led today’sdiscussion.
“But when to implement the sales tax is going to be an issue we’re going to have to face,” he said.
Council members Mark Jones and Derek Raulerson expressed their desires to get the process started as quickly as possible, especially because the jail complex will take two years to be completed, barring any complications or delays.
“I think we’re all in agreement that this is something that has to be done. Banking some money in advance is something that will help us in the long haul,” Jones said. “I think the sales tax is the best avenue: Start it and start banking some money.”
Before the meeting’s conclusion, Councilwoman Sandra Sudduth arranged to hold a finance committee meeting in one week to determine how exactly the city plans to pay for the multimillion dollar project.
If city leaders officially approve the sales tax increase, Smith said, there will be a series of public hearings for residents to attend and express their concerns.
Buckner noted one important point that needed to be communicated to Jacksonville residents about the proposed public safety complex: If built, the upgraded Fire Department building will mean that city residents’ insurance premiums will significantly decrease.
“Some of them by half,” Buckner said.
As the nearly 30 police officers, firefighters and other meeting attendees filed out of the Jacksonville City Council chambers, the police chief said he was pleased with the hour-long session.
“Our request is for y’all to just keep it going,” Thompson said.