The city of La Crosse is considering building a combined police and fire station at an estimated cost of $36 million.
The city’s capital projects budget includes a proposal to borrow $1 million to acquire property for the project in the block bound by Ferry Street, Fourth Street, Market Street and Fifth Avenue, according to a memo written by Mayor Tim Kabat.
The capital improvement plan then proposes the city borrow $25 million in 2023, and a further $10 million in 2024, for what’s described in the plan as the “police law enforcement center.”
The genesis for the idea of a combined police and fire station came from the city’s Fire Station Planning Task Force, said common council member Jessica Olson. She sat on the task force, which was formed in 2017 and dissolved in 2018.
The committee looked at fire departments in other cities and noticed a trend of public safety buildings that combined police and fire operations under one roof. She said the ballpark figure of $36 million for the complex came out of the task force.
The La Crosse Police Department is currently housed in City Hall, which was built in 1970, and according to Olson no longer meets all the department’s needs.
“Everybody on that force is asked to put up with a lot of antiquated ways of operating and has to make it work,” she said.
Interview rooms are outdated, there’s not enough space to allow for locker room facilities for female officers, or adequate space for the computer and data systems a modern police force requires, Olson added. She noted that the city recently spent $1 million to create secure parking for police at City Hall, which she said the council might not have approved if plans for a new station were more firmly established.
Council member Doug Happel also sat on the fire station task force. He’s generally supportive of improving facilities for police and fire, but said the priority was the fire department.
There are numerous issues with the current fire department buildings that have gone too long without being addressed, Happel said. But while the need for a new police station is not as pressing, there could be savings for taxpayers by combining facilities for the two departments .
The city is currently in the midst of a financial crisis due to the economic shock created by the COVID-19 pandemic, and both Happel and Olson emphasized that the plan for the $36 million public safety complex was still at a tentative stage.
“Everything is kind of in flux,” Olson said, and the $36 million proposal is far from “set in stone.”
In response to the financial crisis, the city recently announced cutbacks of $4.4 million in spending, with the ax falling hardest on the city’s parks and library budgets.
The library was asked to cut $525,000, or 10% of its $5.1 million budget, which resulted in 15 layoffs. The police department, however, was only required to trim $100,000, or less than 1% of its $11.7 million budget, which is the biggest of the city’s departments. Parks and recreation took an even bigger hit by cutting $500,000 out of a budget of just $3.4 million.
At a time when there are nationwide calls to defund police, the disproportionate nature of the cutbacks led to local protests, which are likely to be further fueled by a city plan to build a new $36 million public safety complex. However, support for the importance of police and public safety spending in general remains strong among common council members.
“If you are asking me if we need police, yes we do,” Happel said about public perception of police spending. “Should we defund the police? No.”
Top image: La Crosse City Hall, which house the La Crosse Police Department. By Eric Timmons. Questions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.