Salt Lake City approves cash to shop for land on the city’s east side to build a new police station

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake City's Public Safety Building, which opened in 2013. The Salt Lake City Council on Tuesday approved $3.57 million to “facilitate development” in buying land for a new police precinct station on the city's east side.

Salt Lake City is shopping for a piece of land on the city’s east side suitable for construction of a new police station.

The City Council on Tuesday granted Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s staff financial backing to move quickly with due diligence and a purchase contract if the city finds the right parcel for sale to accommodate the new east-side precinct station.

Amid other changes to the city’s 2018-19 budget approved late Tuesday was an item for $3.57 million to “facilitate development” of the precinct station, with $1.3 million of that coming from the city’s surplus land fund and $2.3 million from a pool of money charged to private developers, known as impact fees.

The item was split off from other budget changes and it passed unanimously, driven in part by analysis from Police Chief Mike Brown that the new building would save millions of dollars and improve safety.

Councilman Charlie Luke said Tuesday the city wasn’t eyeing a specific piece of land yet, but that the money allocated would allow the city to move quickly if it found one.

Mike Reberg, director of the city’s Department of Community and Neighborhoods, has said the city ideally needs a parcel of 2.5 acres or more for a police station of between 42,000 and 48,000 square feet. Smaller parcels could also work, Reberg said, by building a multistory structure and putting its parking underground.

The council has met behind closed doors to discuss at least one property up for sale on the city’s east bench, reportedly a privately held lot. Reberg said that having initial money approved for the process “allows us to act quickly when we find parcels that are suitable.”

“We want to be able to jump,” Reberg told the council, adding that Biskupski hopes to “move forward as quickly as possible with construction.”

The Biskupski administration has also briefed council members on scenarios for borrowing $12 million or $20 million to pay for the building by issuing bonds paid off with sales tax revenues or lease payments.

The city is exploring an option for timing new bonds for the police station with the end of debt payments for building Steiner Aquatic Center, which will expire in July 2021. That could essentially mean shifting those city debt payments for Steiner over to the police station bonds — without adding to residents’ tax bills.

The city’s Finance Department has also looked at issuing bonds whose first payments would not be due for 18 months, giving the city time to build the station before having to start paying off the debt.

Brown said the police department’s own analysis assumed a $25 million cost for the new precinct building.

The chief has argued that in addition to reducing response times for police calls on the east side, adding a police station would bring significant cost savings by reducing officer travel times to and from the downtown Salt Lake City Public Safety Building at 475 S. 300 East.

Brown said his officers spent as much as 20 percent to 30 percent of their shifts commuting 20 to 25 minutes each way to reach the downtown station, whether to book suspects or evidence, eat lunch, work out or even use the restroom.

“You can quickly see how that time adds up,” Brown told the council last week.

An informal poll of patrol captains reportedly found that officers make two to four such trips during the average 10-hour shift.

When put in terms of costs for deploying police officers — estimated by Brown between $100,000 and $150,000 per cop per year, fully equipped — the chief said a third station could bring savings equivalent to “roughly 20 officers we could put back into the community.”

Ben Luedtke, a budget policy analyst for the City Council, said Tuesday that separate projections based on a $30 million bond price tag for an east side station suggested that operational savings was an even more efficient way to add officer capacity than hiring them directly.

But Brown and others have also noted that the Salt Lake Valley’s seismic faults run north and south, meaning that a significant earthquake could someday block police access to the east side from the downtown public safety building and the department’s west side facility, the Pioneer Precinct at 1040 W. 700 South.

The valley’s main fault line is said to run roughly along Wasatch Drive, Highland Drive and 1300 East, raising the possibility that a large quake could create a ledge separating eastern and western portions of the urban area.

An east side station, Brown has said, could boost the chance of aid to those residents if that happened.