Why Albany Needs New Police and Fire Stations and Why Now Is the Right Time to Build Them

Last August, the motor in my trusty Buick gave out after more than eight years and nearly 200,000 miles of service.  The cost of replacing the motor would have been higher than the value of the car, so I took advantage of a sale offer and financed a new car over five years at zero interest.  The consequences of driving a car until it is unreliable include a higher chance of being stranded along the road and increasing maintenance costs.

Albany’s downtown fire station, Station 11, is more than 60 years old and was not designed to accommodate the equipment or staffing the City requires today.  Its most significant failing is that it does not meet seismic standards and would be likely to collapse when we have a sizable earthquake.  Housing your emergency staff and equipment in a building that is unlikely to survive a communitywide emergency is not responsible when you have a choice.  Like my Buick, the cost of renovating the building to meet current standards and address its many failings is higher than the cost of building a station that meets our needs.  Replacing Station 11 has been listed as a Fire Department priority for more than 20 years and is included in the City’s Capital Improvement Program and Strategic Plan.

The Albany Police Department is housed in a building that was designed for a staff of 47 people, most of whom had no access to a computer.  The facility has a little over 10,500 square feet of space, although that does not include a small modular unit that houses the Department’s detectives.  Today, there are nearly 90 employees, all of whom rely on computers to assist with their work.  The increased staffing and work station needs are a response to community growth and an increasingly complex criminal justice system.  By comparison, the Sweet Home Police Station, built in 2002, is nearly the same size as Albany’s, while Lebanon’s new station has more than 25,000 square feet.  Building a new Albany station has been listed as a City priority for at least the last decade.

The advantage of building both the Fire and Police Stations now is that the costs of doing so are likely to be substantially less than if the projects are delayed.  Interest rates are at historic lows, and the City has reserved a large amount of the costs from a legal settlement in 2010.  Additionally, debts that were incurred in the 1990s for street improvements and fire substations are about to be retired, which means that property taxpayers would see no increase in taxes if they choose to finance the new stations. 

Several decisions need to be made before either project can proceed.  The City Council will hear a presentation on a financial plan at their August 12 work session, and they will soon decide whether or not to present a proposal to the voters in November.  The Council will appropriately consider many factors before deciding what to do; but, in my opinion, the need for new police and fire stations is not in question. 

My old Buick died at a relatively good time and place, allowing me to replace it at a reasonable price.  We really can’t afford to take the same chances with our emergency facilities when we consider what is at stake.

The Story We Almost Never Hear

I received a copy of an e-mail yesterday from Diane Taniguchi-Dennis, our former Public Works Director.  Diane is one of the smarter people I know, and her success with Clean Water Services in the Tualatin-Hillsboro area comes as no surprise.  Diane provided the following quick analysis of relative water costs in her message:

This is an article about the City of Tigard and City of Lake Oswego’s new drinking water treatment plant:  http://www.pamplinmedia.com/ttt/89-news/155890-cities-save-millions-on-water-plant-project

The total project is 38 million gallons per day with two million in underground storage at $250 million.  Tigard will have 14 million gallons per day of capacity paying an estimated $127 million for that capacity.  This is compared to Albany’s 12 million gallons per day of capacity with storage at the Joint Water Plant for ~$26 million (if I remember correctly).  Albany did well with that investment at ~$2.17 per gallon as compared to Tigard at $9.07 per gallon.

I wish I had been armed with this information at a social gathering I attended over the weekend.  A friend of ours wondered about how much vacation time I receive each year since she noted that she is paying for it.  I reminded her that her property taxes have gone down the past two years, so she countered with a question about what I was doing to lower water rates.  I advised her to use less if she wanted to pay less.

We are in the luxurious position in Albany at the moment of having as much water as we need at an affordable rate.  “Affordable” is a relative term; but my water bill for last month was about $75, which included watering my lawn every day.  Compared to what I pay for less essential goods and services, my water bill seems like a bargain.  The abundance of our water, its quality, and cost are the result of decisions made more than a decade ago when community leaders in Albany and Millersburg came together to invest in a new water treatment plant.  If they had not, Albany’s old treatment plant could not meet peak demand today and the community would have needed to either find another source or begin limiting water use.  I arrived in Albany just in time to celebrate the opening of that plant, and I am very grateful for the insight, collaboration, and wisdom that led to its construction.

Cities across the United States are rationing water and/or paying an increasingly heavy price to keep up with demand.  Albany’s needs should be secure through 2030 and likely for many years beyond that date.  Community leaders had to make the unpleasant decision to raise rates to pay for the treatment plant with the result that Albany residents will be or are paying much lower amounts than places that delayed the decision.  Most of us probably have an attitude similar to my friend who complained about water costs, but as drought spreads and water becomes scarcer we may want to consider the benefits of living in a place where clean water is still an abundant commodity.