By Rasham Nasaar
The taxpayers of Bainbridge Island deserve to know the truth about why the city is on track to spend $23 million on a police and court facility that should cost up to $12 million.
As a council member since 2018, I have heard numerous misleading statements concerning police station costs by the city, that majorities on the City Council have unquestioningly believed. The fiction created by the city is that renovating the old Harrison Medical Center is cheaper than building a new police facility, when in fact the opposite is true.
Here are the facts: In 2018, the city paid $511/square foot for the 17,548 square foot Harrison building when according to the city’s own reports office space in Winslow was averaging $189-$227/square foot. In 2014, again according to the city’s own report, building a new police station from the ground
up would have cost around $7.6 million, or about $400/square foot. Adjusted for rising costs, in 2018 that equals about $500/square foot, a cost typical of public safety buildings in the region.
Even though the city had $12 million in reserves, it borrowed an additional $8 million to purchase Harrison. The public is now on the hook to pay the nearly $3 million in interest to finance that unnecessary debt. The estimated remodeling costs still to come for Harrison are about $10 million, roughly the same cost as constructing an entirely new facility.
So why are we spending $23 million to purchase and remodel Harrison when better alternatives exist?
Consider, for example, the Yaquina triangle property, a 2-acre unencumbered site that the city was considering for a police station in 2018. Experts estimated that total construction and land costs to build from the ground up would be around $11.3 million in 2020 dollars. Located adjacent to Highway 305, and surrounded by two thoroughfares, that site has ready access to the highway and is functionally isolated from homes and critical areas, unlike the Harrison property, half of which falls within a critical area buffer, and is boxed in by an assisted care facility and a church.
Or consider the existing police station site, an option with broad public support. Centrally located near downtown, adjacent to Highway 305, next to a major public transportation hub and ample public parking, cost estimates for an 18,000 square foot or smaller facility on that site should be seriously
explored and may come in well below the $23 million benchmark.
Public opposition to remodeling Harrison as a police facility has been relentless since the idea was first proposed, primarily because it was perceived as a publicly funded bailout of an unsuccessful medical facility. Critics have also ridiculed its extraordinarily high cost, its poor location, the risk of massive cost overruns, and the damage to nearby critical areas.
So why did the city advocate paying an unjustifiable sum for the privilege of remodeling Harrison when much more suitable and affordable alternatives exist? Why did the city issue a bond to purchase a police station after the public had resoundingly defeated a $15 million police station bond only a few years earlier, especially when it had $12 million in reserves?
The staunchest advocates of the Harrison remodel, including former city managers, have left the Island, so we may never know what motivated them to push so hard for this project. In the absence of transparency, speculation abounds. The public record shows that the former mayor was a primary driver in eliminating more cost-effective options, that he strongly advocated for Harrison, and that he failed to disclose his potential financial conflicts of interests between his role as mayor and as CEO of a foundation that received substantial donations from key members of the Harrison/CHI leadership team, including the then president of Harrison.
With key players long gone, project proponents are now arguing that to stop the project would be bad for employee morale, and that we’ve come too far to go back to the drawing board. But that is exactly what we need to do. We need to consider whether spending another $10 million to retrofit Harrison is in the public’s best financial interest. We need to consider whether there is a wiser use for the building, such as senior/affordable housing, uses for which we can get grants and for which there is broad public support.
There is also the option of saving taxpayers the cost of funding new Park District headquarters on the nearby Sakai property by offering Parks the use of Harrison instead. And, given the Island’s very low crime rate, it would be prudent to consider whether the new station really needs to be double the size
of the existing police station as is currently planned.
With elections on the horizon, and a highly experienced city manager coming on board in less than two months, this is the perfect time to pause, reflect and change course toward fiscally and socially responsible decision-making. With hundreds of citizens calling for a reevaluation of the police station project, the public has spoken with great clarity. The question is: will the council listen?
Rasham Nassar is the mayor of Bainbridge Island.