City Council tables Greenfield Police Station upgrade request

  • Police are in the former Kaiser Permanente building STAFF FILE PHOTO/DAN LITTLE


Staff Writer
Published: 4/22/2021 4:56:21 PM

GREENFIELD — City Council had a late night Wednesday as it deliberated the mayor’s fiscal year 2022 capital budget, leaving the Police Department and its request for $1.35 million for repairs and upgrades to the Police Station waiting until at least mid-May before the chief knows how to proceed.

After another discussion among Ways and Means Committee members earlier in the evening — the committee voted 3-2 not to recommend the allocation — the entire council heard from more than a dozen members of the public, and each of the 13 councilors spoke on the matter.

Greenfield resident Molly Merrett started the public comment portion of the discussion about Police Chief Robert Haigh Jr.’s and Mayor Roxann Wedegartner’s request by saying she is “totally against” providing that kind of money without a plan or itemized budget.

Merrett argued that before continuing to make an investment in police, the city should look at what makes a community safe by forming a review commission.

Greenfield resident Marianna Ritchey followed, as did others, urging the city not to give police a “blank check.”

When money is voted in the city’s capital budget, it must be used for what was requested — in this case, repairs and upgrades to keep the people working in the building safe and making sure everything is up to code.

Greenfield resident Nikki Sauber said she’d like to see the money police are requesting allocated for sidewalks, parks, and sewer and water upgrades, while Bekki Craig said she’d like to see “bloated” police budgets cut.

Katherine Golub, a Greenfield resident, said she doesn’t like that the request from police is so “vague,” while Louise Amyot said Greenfield has been lucky that police have been largely well-behaved, but there have been some “regrettable” incidents friends of hers have told her about as their paths crossed with police.

“Take time to discuss what we want from police,” Amyot said. “It’s inappropriate to spend millions on the (Greenfield) Police Department without knowing what it will look like down the road.”

Chief responds

Haigh reminded everyone that the reason he doesn’t have specific estimates and plans is because until a year ago, he was planning on moving his department into a new public safety complex, which had been talked about for many years, going back to former Mayor William Martin’s administration.

Last year, after Wedegartner took office, she learned from her finance team that the city would not be able to afford a public safety complex and new library, but instead would be able to build a fire station and library. So the city decided to build a new library, plus temporary and permanent fire stations, leaving police where they are in the former Kaiser Permanente building on High Street.

It appears, according to city officials, it will be another 10 years or more before the city can afford to move police into a new building. Therefore, Haigh said repairs that weren’t expected to have to be done now have to be addressed and completed, including leaks in the roof, security issues and moving dispatchers out of a small “closet-size” room to a larger, more updated space. The plan is to do everything that needs to be done over three years.

“Some of these things have to be done now,” Haigh told those who attended Wednesday’s virtual meeting.

When he became Greenfield’s police chief eight years ago, Haigh said, it was important to his department and to the city to reach accreditation, which it accomplished in 2019. He said with accreditation comes more oversight and accountability — exactly what residents have been requesting. Some of the building upgrades will have to be completed for the department to seek re-accreditation.

“Why don’t we want to be exceptional?” Haigh asked. “We are one of four accredited departments in Western Massachusetts. It’s on you if you don’t want us accredited.”

Police are accredited under standards developed by many of the best public safety practitioners and leaders, according to Haigh. Receiving accreditation is the “gold standard” in policing and its practices.

Haigh also asked councilors to remember that the capital budget is for things like repairing or replacing buildings, vehicles and sidewalks, for instance, which shouldn’t have anything to do with the current local and national movement to “defund” police or find alternatives to policing. He said police reform is happening and will continue to happen, but those working in the building on High Street “shouldn’t be punished” for a separate issue.

“They deserve a healthy place to work,” he said, as some councilors nodded their heads “yes.”

Councilors speak

By the end of the night — the meeting ended at 11:17 p.m. — the council voted unanimously to table the capital budget request for the Police Station and for hiring an architect/engineer to determine exactly what needs to be done and how much it will cost until next month’s meeting on May 19.

The council did approve all other items on the capital budget, including money for an ambulance lease for the Fire Department, gravel crushing for the Department of Public Works, sidewalks and water and sewer upgrades on Sanderson Street, a new skate park, equipment for GCET (Greenfield Community Energy and Technology), and water fountains and a bocce court at Beacon Field.

Precinct 7 Councilor Otis Wheeler said the police request is a “tough one” because, as Haigh said, taking a good look at policing is not the same as funding necessary upgrades to and maintenance of a building where people are working every day.

Precinct 5 Councilor Timothy Dolan said he wants more documentation before voting $1.35 million this year and $5 million over three years for police. Similarly, At-Large Councilor Philip Elmer said without a list of repairs and costs, the council is at an impasse.

Precinct 1 Councilor Ed Jarvis, former Greenfield deputy fire chief, said when police were told the public safety complex was off the table, people should have realized work was going to have to be done at the station to keep police and dispatchers safe and healthy.

“You don’t want to vote because you don’t have plans or estimates,” Jarvis told fellow councilors. “But you just voted money for a skate park and another park without seeing plans. The working conditions for dispatchers are horrible, unacceptable. This works needs to be done.”

Precinct 2 Councilor Dan Guin echoed Jarvis’ sentiments and added that the necessity of a capital project is based on structural issues and the city’s responsibility to its employees, not whether people believe police should be defunded.

“They were promised a public safety complex and we didn’t get there,” he said. “Now there are problems.”

Guin said if councilors and city officials were talking about a local business that had issues with health, equality, accessibility and safety, everyone would be upset. He said the city cannot decide to make necessary repairs and upgrades to one department — a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system for the DPW — and not provide the same to another department.

“We’re setting a precedent and opening ourselves to lawsuits,” he said. “You can’t hold one department to one standard and another to another. We have to take care of issues that are putting people at risk.”

At-Large Councilor Christine Forgey suggested the council consider reducing the amount it allocates this year so police can hire an architect/engineer and do some of the most pressing work, and then revisit the request again next year, when there is a list of work that needs to be done and a firmer estimate of how much it will cost.

“Go after me and my operating budget,” Haigh said. “But please, if you punish police, you punish dispatchers, too. Don’t punish everyone.”

City Council President Penny Ricketts said she voted “no” to a public safety complex at the time, but now wishes she had voted for one so police would have a safe, healthy place and wouldn’t have to fight for necessary repairs and upgrades. She also said she’d like to see work that needs to be done on the station funded, rather than the city putting a bandage on it.

“I want to invest in the Police Station and take care of its needs,” she said. “I want to do the right thing, and that means some won’t be happy.”

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