By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Mayor Jay Gillian unveiled plans Saturday for a new $35 million public safety building that would combine Ocean City’s police, fire, emergency management and municipal court operations in one complex.
“It’s the right place. It’s the right time,” Gillian said of the proposed project in remarks during a town hall meeting at the Ocean City Tabernacle to present conceptual plans to the public.
City officials have discussed a number of possibilities for replacing or modernizing the antiquated, 130-year-old public safety building, a former school that serves as the police department’s headquarters and location for the municipal court.
After considering different proposals, Gillian said he believes the best option is to combine the operations of the police and fire departments along with the office of emergency management, the 911 system and the municipal court in one centrally located building.
The fire department’s existing downtown headquarters at 550 Asbury Avenue would be demolished to make room for the new public safety building. Meanwhile, the current public safety building at Eighth Street and Central Avenue would also be torn down, but the space would be used for more parking in the downtown business district.
Construction on the new public safety building is expected to begin in the fall of 2021 and would take about 18 months to complete, city officials said. A series of preliminary steps must first be taken, including finalizing the architectural designs and hiring the construction contractor through the public bidding process.
Gillian said the existing public safety building, which dates to 1890, and the fire department’s headquarters, built in 1983, are simply too outdated to handle the technological demands and complexities of modern police and fire operations.
“It is such an important undertaking,” he said of the new project.
However, the mayor repeatedly told the audience of about 50 people inside the Ocean City Tabernacle that the project is still in the conceptual phase at this point and could be changed depending on the public’s feedback.
He pledged to pay close attention to suggestions from the public for possible improvements to such a major project.
“I’m just very serious when it comes to spending millions and millions of dollars,” Gillian said of his due diligence for city projects.
The audience members wore masks and were socially distanced in the Tabernacle’s auditorium amid the coronavirus pandemic. Those who spoke said they were in favor of the project.
Dave Breeden, president of Fairness In Taxes, a community group that concentrates on government spending, praised Gillian for being transparent with the plans for the project. FIT has been able to meet with city officials recently to discuss the project and its financial implications on city taxpayers.
“This project reflects a wise investment,” Breeden said, pointing out that better public safety would enhance the quality of life for local residents and also benefit the city’s tourism industry.
Cape May County Freeholder E. Marie Hayes, an Ocean City resident, also commended the city for focusing on a project that is so critical for public safety.
“I applaud you for taking the time for putting this project together,” she said.
Hayes, a retired law enforcement official with the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office, noted just how outdated the city’s police station has become. She said she had to use the men’s restroom during her visits there while still working for the prosecutor’s office because there wasn’t a women’s bathroom.
As more and more women become police officers and firefighters, Ocean City must provide the type of modern facilities that women should have, Hayes said.
In an interview after the town hall meeting, Police Chief Jay Prettyman explained that a school first constructed in 1890 was converted into the public safety building in 1960. He said the building is showing its age.
“We’ve modified it over the years to fit our needs, but it’s at the point now where the infrastructure is beyond our ability to be updated,” Prettyman said.
Fire Chief Jim Smith spoke of how the new building would be designed to create more space for the firefighters and the fire trucks. While the new public safety building is under construction, the fire department would temporarily shift its operations over to the city’s Bayside Center at 520 Bay Avenue, he said.
The new building would occupy most of the block bordered by Asbury and West avenues between Fifth and Sixth streets – the same location currently used for the fire department’s headquarters. There would be no impact on the neighboring Ocean City Skate Park, city officials said
Rising three stories high, the building would include a parking garage built underneath. There would also be parking in front of the complex on Asbury Avenue.
The building would incorporate the latest in public safety technology along with “green” features to make it environmentally friendly and more energy efficient, city officials said.
During the meeting, Ocean City’s Chief Financial Officer Frank Donato assured the audience that the project would have only a minimal impact on local taxes. He also said that it would not sidetrack the city from completing other crucial capital improvements throughout town, such as road and drainage projects.
The city is estimating it will spend $116 million for capital projects over the next seven years, a figure that includes the $35 million public safety building. Donato said $116 million in spending would increase the local tax rate by only about one-third of a penny to a half a penny per year.
For the owner of a home assessed at $500,000, that would mean about $25 more in local taxes each year, or $50 per year for a house assessed at $1 million, Donato said.
Three bond sales planned in 2024, 2026 and 2028 would finance the capital plan over the next seven years.
“It gets layered in over time,” Donato said of the cost of the capital projects, including the new public safety building.