Bainbridge Island will borrow less money than previously planned to pay for its new police/court facility.
The Bainbridge council agreed at its meeting last week to issue $8 million in bonds to help finance the $20 million makeover of the Harrison-Bainbridge medical building.
The financing decision — which is not yet final — follows a decision earlier this year for the city to buy the medical building for $8.975 million from CHI Franciscan Health.
The city plans to can retrofit the structure as a new public safety facility, which will eventually be home to a new police station as well as a municipal court. Bainbridge police currently work out of an old converted fire station on Winslow Way, described by officers as outdated and cramped and at the end of its useful life, while the municipal court uses a leased building in Rolling Bay.
Last week’s long-awaited decision by the council removes a continuing question of whether Bainbridge officials would seek a do-over at the ballot box for bond funding for the new police station.
The city earlier asked voters, in 2015, to approve $15 million in bonds for the project, but the measure was rejected in a landslide defeat.
Now, city officials plan to issue $8 million in long-term debt and use $12 million in existing funds to pay for the project.
Previously, officials had assumed financing would be split between using $10 million in bonds, and $10 million in existing funds.
The $10 million of non-city funds will come from “councilmanic” bonds — or known as long-term general obligation bonds — which do not require a public vote. Unlike publicly approved bonds, the councilmanic bonds will eventually be retired by using money from the city’s general fund and not a voted property tax increase.
The annual payments to cover the debt from a bond sale are estimated to be roughly $550,000 per year for 20 years.
That’s lower than the debt would have been for a $10 million bond sale, which would have cost the city $720,000 annually to service the debt.
City Manager Morgan Smith said a decision on the project’s financing was an important milestone.
“We’re excited about this,” she told the council.
Smith said the project is getting real “after many, many years of planning.”
Council splits on vote
The financing package was well-received by a majority of the council, which was approved on a 5-2 vote.
“I appreciate taking the conservative approach,” said Councilman Joe Deets.
“The chance of an economic downturn is very real, so I appreciate the conservative nature of this,” he said.
Deets also asked if any surprises had been discovered during the city’s continuing inspections of the building, which was built in 2014 and spans 17,548 square feet.
Smith there hadn’t been any.
“We have been working through all of those inspections and we didn’t come up with anything that was concerning to us. We are moving forward with design and everything is going smoothly so far,” Smith said.
Still, the financing proposal did not find full council support, as the two councilmembers who have repeatedly voted against the project in recent years again said they’d vote no.
“I’m kind of torn on this,” said Councilman Ron Peltier.
Peltier said the city also needs to find money for non-motorized improvements, and councilmanic bonds could be used for projects for bicyclists and walkers. Last November, Bainbridge voters shot down a $15 million, seven-year levy to pay for roadside improvements for bicyclists and pedestrians.
“I would prefer — as opposed to councilmanic bonds — let’s just put this on the ballot,” Peltier said. “If the community supports it, which I think they do, there’s a good chance that they would approve it.”
Councilwoman Rasham Nassar echoed Peltier’s comments.
“I’m not going to support this for many of the reasons that Councilmember Peltier just stated,” Nassar said.
“I just worry about the public perception of this,” Nassar said.
She also said a primary concern was the city’s sustainable transportation plan, a consultant-led effort that will eventually identify improvement projects for bicyclists and walkers.
Nassar said the plan was just as important as a new police station.
“I see that as much of an urgent need, if not more, than funding for the police facility,” Nassar said.
An old argument
The police station-vs-bike improvements argument is not new.
The purported this-or-that choice dates back to earlier this year, when the council approved the purchase of the Harrison-Bainbridge medical building.
At that February meeting, members of Squeaky Wheels, a bicycle advocacy group, asked the council to reduce the amount spent on the new police station so there would be money for road shoulder improvements for cyclists.
In a letter to the council before the vote, Squeaky Wheels said they had been told by an unnamed councilmember that the council wouldn’t fund roadside improvements in the near future “because it needs funding for a new police station.”
The Squeaky Wheels board asked the council instead to consider reducing funding for the police station, or lower priority items, and increase the funding for roadside improvements.
Less than three months earlier, Bainbridge voters had rejected a $15 million, seven-year levy to pay for roadside improvements for bicyclists and pedestrians in the election last November.
In a response to Peter Harris, president of Squeaky Wheels, on its letter on funding priorities, Mayor Kol Medina shot down the suggestion that spending less on a new police station would free up money for other uses.
“Honestly, I’m dumbfounded by this dichotomy that is being floated around the community. Where in the world does this ‘police station’ versus ‘bike shoulders’ discussion come from?” Medina wrote. “There is no direct relationship between funding a new police station and funding bike shoulders. Whoever is making up this relationship is doing just that: Making it up.
“What do I mean?” Medina continued. “One could just as easily say that we should stop funding the Public Works Department so that we could fund more bike shoulders. Or how about we cut five police officer positions and use that money to fund more bike shoulders? Or how about we stop funding the annual road maintenance program and instead build new bike shoulders? Or how about we get rid of the city’s IT employees and instead fund new bike shoulders?”
Medina added that the claim itself was divisive.
“There is no direct relationship between funding for bike shoulders and the police station. Trying to make up or force such a connection will do nothing more than create divisiveness between those who support public safety and those who support bike shoulders. And creating that divisiveness will benefit no one,” Medina wrote. “Frankly, it’s akin to the divisiveness that Trump causes by shutting down the government so that he can get his wall funding. There’s no connection between funding for his wall and funding for the agencies that he shut down; but he made up a connection and look what that’s accomplished.”
The notion that the council had decided against devoting money to fund paved road shoulder improvements was, Medina said, “a bald-faced lie.”
“There was never a time during any council meeting that any councilmember said we should stop funding bike shoulders so that we could instead fund the new police station. Whoever is telling you that is simply lying to you and using you to advance some agenda of their own (read: they don’t like the police station). I’m sorry to speak so bluntly, but that is the truth of it.”
Medina added in the email that Harris was “being used.”
“Rather than focusing on this false and divisive ‘bike shoulders versus police station’ campaign, I encourage you and Squeaky Wheels to focus on helping the city develop a better vision for sustainable transportation on the island that will serve our community even better and engender enough support to pass a ballot measure. “That is a much better use of everyone’s time and energy,” Medina wrote.
Two steps forward
In addition to approving the funding split between $8 million in long-term debt and $12 million in existing city funds, the council also directed staff to prepare to issue $8 million in bonds for the project.
That vote also fell 5-2, with Peltier and Nassar voting in the minority.
“The council just made avery big decision in a long line of big decisions relating to this new facility,” Medina said after the vote.
Debate on a new police station has been percolating for years, he added.
“The city has been talking about it for 15 years, maybe longer,” Medina said.
Even so, the decision is not final.
The council is expected to hold a study session on Sept. 3 to get a briefing from a financial advisor on the bond sale, and an ordinance that would authorize the issuance of bonds is planned for September or October.
If the city’s timeline holds, the bond sale would close in December.
“This is just one step in a long chain that we have done a lot of due diligence on, but it’s not the last step,” Medina said.