East Lyme officials detail proposed police HQ at forum

East Lyme — Town officials gave a detailed presentation to an audience at East Lyme High School’s auditorium Monday night, arguing why residents should agree to invest nearly $6 million in a proposed public safety complex.

First Selectman Mark Nickerson first presented that proposal last month, stating that the town had worked out a deal to purchase a $2,775,000 office building at 277 W. Main St. — a location that borders Old Lyme and sits near the Interstate 95 Rocky Neck connector.

An additional $3.2 million would be needed to renovate that building into a policing facility, but once completed, it would include holding cells, an evidence room, an arms lockup room and storage, among other features. It would also consolidate the town’s dispatch center, fire marshal’s office and emergency operations center, which are currently housed on one site in Flanders.

As part of the hour-long presentation, officials argued, among several other points, that the town’s policing facility located on Main Street and built in 1930 can no longer adequately house its 24-officer police force.

Tom Gardner, a member of the town’s Police Committee, said the town’s facility is considered unsafe for policing operations “and has all the conditions for a smoldering crisis.” Among those problems, Gardner said, it does not provide 24/7 access to the public, is staffed 36 percent of the time, is located within Millstone’s two-mile nuclear evacuation zone and does not have a secure weapons storage area, among many other issues.

“Operationally, we have a long laundry list of inefficiencies and deficiencies that make our work difficult. At the same time, there are structural issues,” Police Chief Mike Finkelstein said, while presenting videos showing a flooding armory room and ceiling leaks within the Main Street building over recent months. “Every time it rains, we constantly have water leaking in the building, presenting health problems to our officers. We never know when or where the water will leak. It comes in from a different spot every time.”

Presenters also argued why the proposed building, presently owned by Honeywell, makes logistical, operational and financial sense for the town and its police force.

“Building a new building out of the ground today is very expensive. The averages I’ve seen are $516 per square foot,” Gardner said, while comparing the proposed deal to other policing facilities recently built or approved around the state.

He said that purchasing a 30,000-square-foot building on 11 acres of land for $200 per square foot was “an unprecedented opportunity.”

Residents attending the meeting, however, immediately expressed apprehensions regarding the proposal following the presentation. Some questioned whether the proposed police building is necessary, while others focused on the feasibility of its proposed location and its proximity to flood zones, its abundance in size, and lost tax revenue after Honeywell Corp. moves out of that building, among other concerns.

In particular, residents expressed fears about how financing an additional $6 million for the facility, almost two years after the town approved financing $38 million for elementary school renovations, could cause a burden to taxpayers.

Expecting those concerns, Finance Director Anna Johnson discussed the town’s financial status and how it is phasing and retiring debt within the town’s budget over coming years, as well as potential impacts on taxpayers if the proposal passes. The proposal must first pass through the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance before going to referendum.

She said that to finance the proposal, the town would need bond out nearly $9.2 million, a figure that includes interest, over 20 years. She said that a resident with a home valued at $250,000, would pay an additional $50.37 on average annually. She estimated that adding the $9.2 million to the town’s debt would raise the mill rate by .55 percent.

Addressing location concerns, Nickerson said that there is an already-engineered state plan to raise the road and bridge running past the proposed site to accommodate for potential flooding of Four Mile River. The Honeywell building sits at 80 feet above sea level, Gardner added.

“I can honestly tell you that there is no other building in East Lyme that can satisfy all the criteria for a proper policing facility,” Gardner said. “Financially, the timing isn’t the best, I agree with that. But we have a crisis at 278 Main Street. We are trying to solve a problem with the options we have today ... If this building disappears, to be honest and frank with you, I don’t know what we would do.”

Other public forums are expected to take place over coming months. The Police Department will be hosting an open house of their Main Street building from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday. The public is invited to tour the building. The public is also invited to email additional questions regarding the proposed facility to questions@eltownhall.com.

m.biekert@theday.com

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