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Wednesday, April 18,2012

What's in a study?

Beneath the politics of consolidating Lansing police operations, a web of studies and planning

by Andy Balaskovitz

The Bernero administration is forging ahead with plans to move its Police Department into the old National Guard Armory, despite a nearly finished study that suggests at least one more option: the current North Precinct building.

Moreover, the owner of the North Precinct is willing to sell, which would satisfy one of the administration’s objectives: no longer paying rent.

“We’ve said we’re perfectly happy to do build-outs and sell it,” said Harry Hepler, resident agent of Summit Street Development Co. LLC, which owns the building. The city already owns the old armory, now called the South Washington Office Complex, at 2500 S. Washington Ave. The state sold it last year for $1, but as part of that deal, the city had to pay $22,000 for an adjacent piece of land.

The study, which began in 2010, cost $175,000, Chad Gamble, the city’s chief operating officer, said. The administration has been sitting on preliminary data since at least December, before former Finance Director Jerry Ambrose left the city to work on the emergency manager team in Flint, said Kevin Feuka, business development manager at C2AE, the firm that conducted the study.

But the administration has been preparing for consolidation since 2008, when it began appropriating money from the General Fund for consolidation studies. In total, the administration says less than $200,000 has actually been spent on plans. The upcoming fiscal year appropriation would more than triple that and go beyond studies to actual design work. In other words, the beginning of moving to the armory.

Nearly everyone at City Hall agrees on the need to move police operations into one building that the city owns — not rents, as it does for more than $300,000 a year at its North Precinct on May Street between Saginaw Street and Oakland Avenue, just west of Pennsylvania Avenue. Police administration and the jail are at City Hall downtown. The South Precinct will hopefully be completely empty by June, said Police Chief Teresa Szymanski. 

But the administration has encountered Council opposition in the past week on several fronts: On its desire to use about 7 percent of police millage revenue (approved by voters in November) for upfront architectural and design costs; on its apparent decision to settle on the South Washington Office Complex when another location is on the table; and on the fact that the city has annually appropriated money since 2008 on consolidation plans that have seemingly turned up little more than an incomplete study. 

Gamble would not release the preliminary study to City Pulse until City Council members all had a chance to review it. 

“What is problematic is this is the first time I’m hearing we’re ready to go on something,” Council President Brian Jeffries said during a Police Department budget hearing Monday night. He added that he “didn’t even know” a firm was hired to do the study. Lansing-based architectural and planning firm C2AE conducted the study. “I’d like to see a copy of whatever it is you have done so I can be brought up to speed on this.”

Gamble said the report essentially suggests two buildings — the former armory or the current North Precinct — and a variety of renovation options for either of those buildings. But no one from the administration has entertained the idea publicly of buying out the space it’s leasing for the North Precinct. When asked if it’s 100 percent certain that the city will move into the former armory, Gamble said: “I think that is high on our priorities.” And there are benefits to the armory, Gamble said: It’s at the “geographical center of the city,” the city owns it, and at the North Precinct there are “building maintenance issues we’re trying to get figured out.”

“We want to make an investment,” Gamble said, “but make it smart.”

The former armory was built in the early 1960s and includes about 95,000 square feet of floor area, property records show. The North Precinct is about 24,000 square feet.  

As for “building maintenance issues” at the North Precinct, those are disputed by Hepler, the landlord.

On maintenance issues, Hepler said the administration’s position is analogous to proving a perfectly good car is faulty as a way to justify buying a new car. The Lansing State Journal reported late last month that Lansing Police Capt. Mike Yankowski signed an affidavit saying, in part, that the precinct “has had serious roof leaks for not less than the past five (5) years.” While that’s resulted in “55 separate complaints since 2007, even then, the North Precinct roof has not been repaired,” according to the affidavit.

Hepler said it has been repaired. Steve Purchase, president of the property management company, H Inc., then produced an email from Yankowsi on March 26, 17 days after Yankowski signed the affidavit, saying: “No reported leaks from over the weekend that I’m aware of.”

“I went up on the 10th floor of City Hall for the first time in three years,” Hepler said in his office Friday about attending the prior Monday’s City Council meeting. “I looked up and counted 28 leaky ceiling tiles. People in glass houses … .”

The State Journal also reported that Summit Street Development had to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after being accused of defaulting on a loan worth more than $5 million. Hepler said the original bank that issued the loan was taken over by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and that the new Ohio-based bank, First Financial, refused to extend it after the loan came to a term end. “Then suddenly out of nowhere, this affidavit.”

Szymanski, chief of the LPD, said the idea of separate precincts goes back to the Hollister administration, when studies showed the importance of having a larger neighborhood presence. 

“The decentralizing of services has served its purpose,” Szymanski told the Council. “The time has come to consolidate into one building. We have heard from front line officers and detectives that this greatly enhances our ability to coordinate with one another. I’ve also heard from community members that paying rent is a waste of money and that it’s time to get out of leases.”

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