Local Politics

Raleigh officials continue to bicker over safety center

Posted April 13, 2010 12:29 p.m. EDT
Updated May 18, 2010 6:00 p.m. EDT

— The sharp split on the City Council that killed plans for a $205 million downtown tower to house all of Raleigh's public safety operations resurfaced Tuesday.

Mayor Charles Meeker and council members Mary-Ann Baldwin, Bonner Gaylord and Russ Stephenson met for the first time as a task force charged with outlining issues in the debate over the proposed Clarence E. Lightner Public Safety Center for an independent consultant. The consultant, who has yet to be hired by the City Council, would then look at the best possible site, design and cost for the facility.

The original plan for the safety center called for housing the city's fire and police departments, 911 operations center and other emergency services in a 16-story, 300,000-square-foot building at the corner of McDowell and Hargett streets. The Raleigh Police Department recently vacated its building on the site.

The City Council couldn't agree last month on a plan to finance the center. Some council members expressed concern about raising taxes to pay it off, and others said the building included unnecessary amenities and was too costly.

City Manager Russell Allen recently proposed a financing strategy that would allow Raleigh to build the safety center without raising taxes, prompting the council to take a second look at the idea.

The contentious atmosphere that marked the previous debate spilled over into the task force, however, as members bickered over how to pay for a consultant and whose recommendation to accept on hiring the consultant.

Meeker and Allen have pushed to proceed with construction, noting the window will soon close on low interest rates and construction costs as the economy picks up steam.

"What we have today is an enormous amount of savings," said Marty Moser, director of pre-construction services for Raleigh-based Barnhill Contracting.

Wake County saved about 20 percent on the cost of its new downtown Justice Center because of stiff competition among contractors bidding on the project, Moser said. He said the savings won't last forever, though.

"The risks increase the longer you wait," he said.

Chuck Wilson, president of Durham-based C.T. Wilson Construction, estimated that the safety center could be built for about $170 million now as contractors scramble for projects. If Raleigh waits a year to build, he said, the city could face a $250 million price tag as material costs rise and stronger companies restore their profit margins.

"Things aren't going to get any cheaper than they are now, and I certainly see them going up rather dramatically in the next 12 to 18 months," Wilson said.

Stephenson said a proper review of the safety center's cost, design and location overrides the risk of waiting and paying more.

"I absolutely feel the pressure of time, but I even more feel the pressure of getting the facts before me so we can make the right decision based on the facts," he said.

The task force is scheduled to meet again in two weeks.