New Public Safety Building could cost $30 million

Above, one of three possible plans being considered for Wicomico County’s Public Safety Building. Said architect Rob Manns: There is “no glitz and glamor spaces. Everything is totally based on the needs of a modern law enforcement agency to conduct business.”

Since they moved out of the County Courthouse in the 1980s, Wicomico Sheriff’s Deputies have looked forward to the day they would occupy a real public safety complex.

For decades, the Sheriff’s Office has been in what former Sheriff Hunter Nelms once called “basically a farm building.” The nearly windowless structure is cramped, its aluminum roof leaks and it falls far short of adequately serving the 100-plus deputies who serve the county.

A new public safety building has been on the county’s wish list for years. But, in the last two decades, increases in law enforcement spending has gone toward equipment and improved salaries. When the county faced something of a crime surge in the 1990s, a new building wasn’t seen as a priority.

Later, when crime rates were more in control, an economic recession hit. Coming out of that downturn, school building needs were at the top of the county’s list — a Sheriff’s building remained on the back-burner.

Finally, in 2016, a new Wicomico County Public Safety Building got to the top of the to-do list.

A feasibility study was started, an architect was selected and drafting plans commenced.

In annual capital spending discussions, the thinking — and discussion points — pegged the cost in the range of $10 million, which the county could borrow. The project seemed wholly manageable. 

Then, last month, the County Council was administered a bitter pill: The $10 million price tag was a flawed estimate from long ago — the real price would be closer to $30 million..

Information blackout

At a Sept. 15 County Council meeting, Wicomico’s legislative branch finally got to sit across the table from county Purchasing Agent Nicholas Rice and architect Rob Manns of the firm Manns-Woodland Studios.

Discussion and details about the building had mostly been limited to within the executive branch, except for the cost numbers that were contained in capital budget spreadsheets.

It took several minutes of back-and-forth discussion before Council Vice President John Cannon was able to declare the project might be in deep trouble.

The county’s original plan was to allot about $5 million annually over three years to cover the Public Safety Building (Phase I of the project) and another $5 million at a later time for a 911/Emergency Operations Center (Phase II).

The county already paid $590,000 in 2018 for the 8.1 acres on which the structure will be built, located in a business park just off the Route 50 Bypass in west Salisbury.

In seeking to explain the price escalation, Manns said the initial methodology for calculating the cost had been “grossly inaccurate.”

There is “no glitz and glamor spaces,” Manns said. “Everything is totally based on the needs of a modern law enforcement agency to conduct business.”

He said the Public Safety Building will be 58,000-square-feet and the accompanying 911 Center will be 20,000-square-feet.

He said the cost increases are largely based “on local contracting and subcontracting realities of this area,” meaning that the contracting pool is more limited, which reduces competition and adds costs.

The building would include holding cells, an evidence storage, a garage area where evidence-vehicles can be stored and garage space for command cars.

The building would include a lot of glass as part of the design, which allows natural light but can also be expensive because it has to be bullet resistant.

The entire complex must also be resistant to attacks and able to withstand hurricanes and even earthquakes.

“We have always thought the budget was too low,” Mann said. “It’s a struggle between letting the budget drive the design and letting the design drive the budget.”

He said the building was not “over-designed” and would meet the county’s needs.

“We could certainly debate what is needed and what is not,” Manns said. “But I would say unless we’re going to have to go back and hack and slash the building and literally cut out significant portions of functionality and space, we’re probably priced correctly. We feel like we’ve tried to stretch the dollar and provide the best design solution you seek today.”

Sheriff Mike Lewis said he has repeatedly warned the construction budget was insufficient.

“We were well aware the project would exceed everyone’s expectations,” he said. “Everyone knew we would be here (in a budget discussion).

“What I could not and never would accept was the disharmony and lack of communication between the executive branch and the legislative branch,” the Sheriff said. “It’s something every member of this council has dealt with for the past six years. This is what happens when you don’t have that collaboration.”

Capital budget dilemmas

Appearing before the council on Oct. 20, Finance Director Pam Oland said projects totalling $91 million are on the “ask list” by the school board, Wor-Wic Community College and county department.

That number far exceeds the amount the county can borrow while still protecting its reserves.

Cannon said the executive branch led by Acting County Executive John Psota should complete an immediate re-evaluation of Capital Improvement Plan.

“The executive branch has to rework CIP and then come back to us and say how we’re going to make this work,” Cannon said.

As part of the normal Fiscal 2022 budget schedule, the capital plan for years 2022 through 2026 is due to the council in December.

In fact, Psota has scheduled a hearing at the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center for public input on the CIP.

Officials had originally said that groundbreaking for the Public Safety Building could occur this fall, with construction over this winter. Now, however, construction can’t start until fiscal year begins, sometime after July.

And, the county still needs to determine how to pay for it all.

County school buildings have been known to cost in the $30 million to $35 million range, but usually half or even more of their cost is underwritten by the state. Apart from some potential federal grants for equipment, there are no such funding sources for a public safety project.

The Capital Improvement Program hearing will be held Thursday, Nov. 19, in the Civic Center’s Midway Room. It will begin at 6 p.m.

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