Mayor wants new public safety building

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OCEAN CITY — Built in the late 1890s as the city’s first high school, it’s among the island’s oldest structures. It’s designed to educate children, not house a police department and a municipal court, which is why Mayor Jay Gillian said the city’s public safety building has long outlived its useful life.

A new “public safety building” is in the cards. The existing one has served the community well for more than a century, Gillian said, and his administration is going to begin the process of replacing it.

“It’s in really bad shape,” he said of the Central Avenue landmark. “I’m not going to continue to throw bad money into an old building that’s been there forever. We can’t wait for it to fall down to begin to think about the future. It needs a lot of work and I don’t want to waste money trying to fix it anymore.”

It’s time for consolidation, Gillian said.

“We’re going to look at putting the police and fire into one public safety building,” he said.

The obvious spot, he said, would be the 500 block between Asbury and West Avenues, where the Sixth Street firehouse is now located. Whether the city renovates the firehouse, adding on to it utilizing an existing parking lot, or finds a more suitable location remains to be seen, but on this much he is sure: the process will start moving forward.

“We wouldn’t need as big a building as we have now,” he said of the existing police building. “It would be great to have the police and fire together in one location, in one facility. Fifth Street would be a great location. We are reviewing and revamping every department in the city, so looking at a new public safety building is part of that process.”

The city commissioned Patriot Consulting Group to perform an assessment of the police department’s manpower and facility five years ago. Gillian said costly professional reviews are history.

“We’re trying to be more efficient,” he said. “We’ve done enough surveys, enough studies, spent enough money determining that it’s old and no longer functional for a modern police department. We know that; we don’t need to pay someone to tell us that again. The roof is in bad shape, the heating system and the overall condition of the building warrants replacement.”

Gillian said the administration would also look into more “shared services” in a new, modern building.

OCPD Chief Chad Callahan said he appreciated the mayor’s efforts.

“That’s what’s good about the mayor,” he said. “We’ve needed a new building; it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine that it costs a lot of money to maintain this building and we are grateful that the mayor is willing to do something about this, at least look into it.

“We’ve been asking for the past four years for this to be done; a needs assessment, by the city, to look into different options,” Callahan said. “We need to figure out exactly how much space we really need.”

Callahan said he and Capt. Jay Prettyman are certified to perform accreditation assessments on departments statewide. The two have visited other police buildings on their travels.

“We’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly,” he said. “We have some ideas of what may work best for us, to meet our needs and operate efficiently.”

Building a new structure at Fifth Street, he said, would serve both the police department and the public well.

“We do a lot of walk-up business,” he said. “People come in to pay tickets, we’d still be in the center of town and convenient. Obviously, in a new building we could correct a lot of the deficiencies in the existing building.”

One of the most glaring, Callahan said, leaves both the public and police personnel vulnerable to the whims of a potentially violent criminal. The building does not have a Sally-port, an enclosed area used to offload prisoners, which was recommended by Patriot’s assessment.

The door that police officers bring a prisoner into the building is right next to the front entrance. By design, the public is at any given moment potentially in harm’s way. Callahan said it is a safety issue.

The old school building, he said, has a lot of history. When the then-new OCHS was built in 1928, the building became known as the Central Avenue School, housing elementary students.

When the primary and intermediate schools were completed in 1965, the building was turned over to the OCPD and renovated to become the city’s public safety headquarters.

Now, oil seeping up the crumbling walls in the evidence room, asbestos, drainage and sewage issues, old carpet on the walls to reduce noise levels, among other things affect morale.

The public entrance/desk sergeant area, the first point of contact with police officials, is inadequate, according to the Patriot report. There is also no public restroom facility downstairs. The report noted many years of neglect, though Callahan said some of the issues had been addressed.

Patriot noted the lack of handicapped parking. Police vehicles must be parked “off campus.” The building is not ADA compliant. There is also no fire suppression in the building. HVAC systems are inadequate.

The report criticizes a lack of area for police to fill out reports, triage and interview citizens. Victims of domestic violence are in a high traffic area and afforded no privacy.

The lieutenant’s and sergeant’s offices are used by four and eight officers. Lockers for all officers are too small and there is no space for seasonal employees. Mold is prevalent, the report states.

The OCPD shares space with the city’s welfare office. Located next to the roll call room, non-police employees and private citizens can hear what is being said.

The odor of gun cleaning solvents permeates the armory due to poor ventilation. The report notes the room is too small, creating a safety concern when officers are loading and unloading weapons.

Cell blocks are not properly ventilated. The detective bureau, interview room, traffic safety, chief’s office, captain’s office, training offices and community policing areas have myriad issues.

“Even discounting the age and condition of this building there are several design flaws that reduce the efficiency of the police operation,” the report states. “Without a doubt, the facility is living on borrowed time. A replacement project should be explored.”

“We’ve done our best to make it work, some of the deficiencies have been corrected, but it’s time,” Callahan said. “Kudos to Mayor Gillian for recognizing that, taking action has been put off for many years. The building has been piecemealed; everything is a hodge-podge. We’re crossing our fingers that we can do something about this building in the near future.

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