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Police station’s price tag raises eyebrows

Councillors question expense, location after hearing report on future of police HQ.

THUNDER BAY – City councillors raised critical questions Monday night over a report recommending a $52 million new headquarters for Thunder Bay police.

Some councillors expressed concerns over that price tag and questioned the need for a new facility, while others were disappointed the report seemingly rules out locating the new station in a downtown core.

The document was presented for information and discussion Monday night. The city’s Police Services Board leads the process, while it will be up to city council to approve funding for a firmer proposal at a later date.

The report indicates the current police headquarters on Balmoral Street, built in the mid-1980s, is nearing end of life and is “insufficient to support current operational requirements.” It recommends building a new one nearly double the size at a new location, saying that option would ultimately be cheaper and more effective than making additions to the existing station.

Police Chief Sylvie Hauth said the force is scrambling to meet its growing needs in the current station, which she said is too small and lacks key facilities, like a shooting range and forensics lab.

“We currently have nowhere to train, all we have is a boardroom that we on a daily basis convert from a computer room to a use-of-force self-defense training room,” she told councillors. “We have no access for any type of public meeting area. From a logistics standpoint, we have no report-writing room for our officers. The list is quite extensive.”

Hauth added there are also accessibility and privacy concerns due to limited space at the current building.

Beyond the limitations police are already dealing with, the report says the force is likely to grow significantly. It estimates the number of full-time equivalent employees operating out of police headquarters could grow from its current 309 to 400 in the next 20 to 25 years. That estimate is due to trends in policing, not projected population growth, the report says.

Some councillors weren’t convinced of the need for a new station, at least not without seeing additional information. Several wanted to know if police had considered alternatives like adding smaller satellite stations instead.

“To throw away a 30-year-old building like this, how do we explain this to the public?” asked Coun. Mark Bentz. “To just abandon this large building that most feel is probably still functional – [or] it should be… Basically we’re talking about doubling the police station to almost the size of the Superstore – which boggles my mind, really.”

“It’d be nice to have a nice, new shiny building – I mean, we’d all want that,” said Coun. Trevor Giertuga. “I just don’t think the community can afford a $52 million new building, [not] without exploring all options.”

Engineering consultants with Form Studio Architects and RPL Architects told councillors they weren’t asked to consider the possibility of satellite offices, but that a single station is likely a better option for a community like Thunder Bay.

Councillors also expressed disappointment at the report’s recommendation that the station should remain centrally located, rather than moved to a downtown core as some had hoped. A travel time study showed a south core location would leave parts of the city more than a 15-minute drive away, while consultants also had concerns that level rail crossings in the area could impede response times.

Coun. Aldo Ruberto was heavily critical of the report, saying it should have looked harder at bringing a permanent police presence into the downtowns, where he says the highest number of crimes and incidents occur.

“I don’t see why we’re not looking at other options,” he said Monday. “Honestly, I was shocked when I saw this [report]. I was thinking to myself, this is unbelievable. Looking at the best urban design practices, you locate a police station in a downtown core area, whether it’s a hub or something else – number one, you’ve got security. Number two, there’s a tax income.”

The at-large councillor went on to wonder what the proposed spending of over $50 million could do if applied to address underlying crime issues like mental health and poverty.

Giertuga began to move a motion calling on the Police Services Board to examine the satellite station option, in addition to those already considered in the report, but withdrew it after City Manager Norm Gale warned that could come with unknown additional costs. Giertuga said he would consider moving the motion at next week’s council meeting after learning more.

The report pegs the costs of a new station at roughly $52 million, while it estimates renovations and additions to the new station to meet similar needs would run closer to $64 million.