SALISBURY – A discussion on how the construction of a new public safety complex could impact the county’s finances highlighted a council meeting last week.
In a work session last week, the Wicomico County Council met with Finance Director Pam Oland and Acting County Executive John Psota to discuss how the county could fund the construction of a new public safety building, to be located on an eight-acre site at the corner of Westwood Drive and Naylor Mill Road in Salisbury.
While the county had initially planned for a $10 million project, officials were surprised to learn late last month that the new facility would cost significantly more. To that end, the county’s administration was tasked with evaluating ways to fund the construction, as well as the impact the project would have on other capital projects moving forward.
“To be clear, there is an identified need for this public safety building project,” Psota said last week. “The purpose of this presentation is to fulfill our responsibility to provide the prospective impact that the capital projects listed could have on our future debt management and our future borrowing capacity. “
In the fall of 2018, a feasibility study was completed for the new public safety complex. And that November, the county purchased an eight-acre site on which to build the facility.
The first phase of the project, which would be the construction of a new Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office, includes roughly 58,000 square feet at an estimated cost of nearly $28 million. The second phase, which would be the construction of an emergency services department and 911 call center, includes 20,000 square feet at an estimated costs of nearly $8 million.
But when the designs and cost estimates were presented to the council last month, many were quick to share their concerns regarding the scope of the project. While the county had allotted funds in its capital improvement plan (CIP) for a new sheriff’s office, officials said it did not include an emergency services center. They added that they did not anticipate a $28 million price tag for the sheriff’s office.
“We’ve never been updated until this point …,” Councilman Ernie Davis said at the time. “You drop it in our lap at the last minute … That’s why the money isn’t there.”
Oland told the council last week the administration has since conducted an analysis of the county’s available debt service.
She noted the county would need to borrow roughly $19.6 million to fully fund the public safety building project. But with a handful of other major projects, Oland said the county would reach its borrowing limit within five years.
“Over five years, if we funded every single one of these projects, we would need $95 million to borrow …,” she said. “We will have tapped out on all of our borrowing capacity on five departments and not be able to borrow for any other general fund project at the current estimates.”
Oland noted the county had tough decisions moving forward as it developed the CIP for fiscal years 2022-2026.
“The council and administration is trying to make a decision on the public safety building,” she said. “So we are trying to give a broader picture of what the public safety building’s impact – at the number it’s currently listed – has on the county’s finances as a whole.”
Councilman John Cannon noted the CIP would have to be reworked if the county were to move forward with the public safety complex project.
“This project is already moving forward, so I think we have to figure out how we can make it work,” he said. “In doing so, we need to know how we are going to stretch our dollars and that’s the information we are going to need from the administration.”
The council agreed to continue its discussion on funding for the public safety building after the coming year’s CIP is submitted to the legislative body in December. Officials also encouraged another meeting with the project’s architects to discuss the scope of work.
“Square footage needs to be talked about …,” Councilman Bill McCain said. “Is there a way to do some modifications that could save some significant dollars?”
When asked the timeline for breaking ground on the project, Purchasing Agent Nicolas Rice said it would be in fiscal year 2022 at the earliest.
“We have the funding to finish the design of the building, but we wouldn’t be able to start the construction of the building until we have the full $28 million for the construction of the building,” he said.