City considering improvements to GFPD, GFFR; public safety levy

City Commissioners reviewed proposals to expand the evidence space at the Great Falls Police Department during their Nov. 1 meeting.

The evidence storage and processing space is nearly overrun and they expect to run completely out of space within the next two years, according to staff.

Tom Hazen, the city’s grant administrator, told commissioners that there’s more evidence coming in to the facility than going out. He said that the department receives about 300 to 700 pieces of evidence in homicide cases annually.

The five year total from 2017 to 2021 of evidence coming in was 61,974 pieces, compared to 36,323 pieces going out over the same time period, Hazen said.

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Evidence retention is dictated by law and agreements with lawyers and courts during cases, he said.

Hazen said that as GFPD adds more offices through the COPS grant and crime task force initiatives there could be an increase in evidence collection.

Staff has long been discussing the need for more evidence processing and retention space, GFPD Chief Jeff Newton said and over the summer, staff began a discussion of adding a pre-fabricated addition to the existing building but determined that wasn’t a feasible option.

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Staff also determined that a new free-standing building would be too expensive.

In July, commissioner approved a contract with BSpark Architecture for pre-design services with an hourly rate not to exceed a total of $39,250.

BSpark has been reviewing the existing space and options for renovating existing space or building on to GFPD.

One option was to remodel the existing space for about $1.1 million, but it would only add about 10 percent of evidence storage space and potentially close the gym space, which is a requirement in the collective bargaining agreement for police officers.

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Staff is recommending a building expansion to allow for more processing and storage space, as well as a vehicle intake area.

That project is an estimated $4.4 million and would increase storage space by 82 percent with minimal impact to current operations since it would be on the southside of the building and also improve parking and security, according to staff.

The project has been marked as a top tier priority for the city’s American Rescue Plan Act allocation, which are federal COVID relief funds.

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Staff said the proposed project doesn’t include increased training space, but Newton said they are looking at other options to expand that space to bring in more training programs rather than travel.

Expanding evidence space, Newton said, is a top priority.

Commissioner Rick Tryon said, “this looks like something that is an absolute necessity.” but was concerned that they hadn’t budgeted enough ARPA funds for it in their priority list.

Hazen said staff would make adjustments to the priority list as cost estimates firm up.

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Tryon said they may need to consider reducing the amount of ARPA funds commissioners set aside for community grants, which they capped at $3 million.

Later in November, staff is scheduled to review their recommendations for those community grant awards.

Commissioner Eric Hinebauch said that before they ax community grants, they need better estimates for the city’s list of priority projects.

Another of the priority projects is infrastructure updates at Great Falls Fire Rescue stations.

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Hazen said their looking at updating and replacing the HVAC systems to increase safety, as well as increase social distancing options through improved locker rooms and shower areas.

The existing HVAC systems are aging and malfunctioning and not removing contaminants as necessary, staff said.

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The city hired Cushing Terrell to go through the four fire stations to review and design improvements. That work is underway and staff anticipates being able to open the project for bids in early 2023.

They expect they can complete the project at all four stations within a year from contract award.

GFFR Chief Jeremy Jones, said “our systems are failing.”

Jones told commissioners they don’t have heat in some areas of the stations.

“This is not a nicety, this is a matter of if you want to keep your four current fire stations” operational before we decide on anything else in the future, Jones said. “We’re having failures everywhere.”

The city is also considering a public safety levy next year and reviewed a draft request for proposals to hire an outside firm for a community education program to market the levy.

The city has several employees who’s job functions include community communications.

Deputy City Manager Chuck Anderson told commissioners that it’s not unusual for a government agency to hire a consultant to market a levy and that the school district had done so.

Great Falls Public Schools officials said that they had not hired outside firms to market the last operational levy or facility bond.

KEY!, a local education advocacy group, hired a third party firm in 2019 to conduct community polling and used that data to guide their inhouse community campaign for the 2020 operational levy.

Staff handled community education for the successful 2016 facility bond vote.

The Great Falls Public Library Foundation has hired a third party firm to do community polling to guide the library’s plan to pursue an operational levy, but the library itself is not funding such work.

Commissioners told staff they were okay moving forward with releasing the RFP with a cost range of $50,000 to $150,000. They said they’d make decisions after they receive proposals and see numbers for the proposed levy.