Supporters of new Norwich police station will appeal to voters

Norwich - Election signs for candidates dot the landscape here, but there are few reminders that Norwich voters will decide on a controversial plan to build a new $33.4 million downtown police station.

One or two "Vote No" signs have appeared in recent days. And project supporters met Saturday to plan their campaign for the final week before the election.

Mayor Peter Nystrom said the group will put up signs and will try to broaden support through social media. Supporters plan to knock on doors to hand out information about new police station next weekend.

"The bottom line is if you break it down, on a daily charge, it's less than a buck a day we're asking people to consider," Nystrom said. "For that you get a building that's good for 50 years and get to have enhanced security downtown and a commitment to community policing."

The project calls for purchasing the former Sears building at 2-6 Cliff St. and several surrounding vacant lots and using the city-owned adjacent parking lot to create a 57,000-square-foot police station. The three-story Sears building would be the core, with a secured prisoner drop-off location built at the rear, 29 holding cells and an indoor shooting range. A three-story parking garage would be built on the city parking lot, with 75 ground floor public parking spaces.

Police Chief Louis Fusaro said the facility would last at least 50 years - unlike the department's last two stations, which were too small as soon as they opened. The current station at 70 Thames St., which opened in 1979, has 20,000 square feet of space, very little parking and no covered parking for police vehicles.

"We fight that building every day in everything we do," Fusaro said.

Officers often interview people making complaints in the main lobby or in a small interview room with little privacy. New Internet crime units have been crammed into small make-shift offices, and there is no space for on-site training.

Norwich officers travel to other departments for training, spending their lunch money in restaurants in those towns. The new station would allow Norwich police to host those programs, bringing outside dollars to downtown.

The project has been controversial since it was first unveiled at the July 2 City Council meeting. Residents questioned the $33.4 million cost during an economic downturn and the property purchase price of $2.5 million to the estate of Edward Lord and the Lord Family Nominee Trust, the entities that own the properties.

Residents objected that the city paid the owners a $100,000 non-refundable option price for six months until the referendum. The money would be lost if voters reject the plan, but would be included in the purchase price if the project is approved.

City officials argued that the recession is the best time to pursue the project, when bid prices will be cheaper and the region most needs the jobs.

Norwich has a good bond rating, recently obtaining a 2.6 percent interest rate on a 20-year bond - the lowest for a Connecticut town, City Comptroller Joseph Ruffo said.

"Do I think it will cost $33 million?" Fusaro told about 50 people at a recent Norwich Rotary meeting. "Absolutely not. Bids are coming in extremely low. But we had to be conservative in the estimates."

He said the previous two stations were scaled down to fit inadequate budgets, resulting in buildings that didn't meet the department's needs.

Ruffo said the project will cost $48 in additional property taxes in the first year on a house assessed at $100,000. By the fifth year, the cost would be $116. The total cost to a $100,000 assessed home would be $1,800 over the 20-year duration of the bond.

"That's the worst case scenario," City Manager Alan Bergren said. "Our goal is to bring that in under budget."

c.bessette@theday.com

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