The old bank building at the corner of East Main and Flint streets in Lincolnton is not a suitable police headquarters, at least not without expansion and renovation. But taking such an expensive step, especially right away, isnâ€™t the right answer.
No one on the City Council disputes that some improvement is needed to reduce crowding and provide for modernization. Alternatives, like eventually building a new facility and temporarily leasing additional space, are ideas that have merit and deserve consideration.
The council has consistently been divided on this issue. Mayor John Gilleland and council member Devin Rhyne have opposed taking action at this time. However, the majority on the council, including Dr. Les Cloniger, Larry Mac Hovis and Carroll Heavner, has pushed forward with the project. They took a key step toward ultimate approval with a vote on Monday.
This majority has said the relatively low current cost of construction materials is ideal and a delay could end up being more expensive.
Rhyne and Gilleland have pointed to the sputtering local economy and high unemployment. The city narrowly avoided a tax increase this year and has not lowered its tax rate in many years. They say the time is wrong to tackle such a big project.
The council majority has not made a convincing case for the need to rush into action at a time of financial trouble. Trying to capitalize on low construction costs could be penny wise and dollar foolish if the Police Department found the improvements inadequate a few years from now. Even with renovations, the location was never designed as a police station and would retain some features that are impractical for police work.
The council majority has not demonstrated a strong effort to consider alternatives. Leasing space could address some concerns and save taxpayers temporarily while more long-term commitments could be deferred to a time when they are more practical. In the long run, the city might be better off to wait until economic conditions improve and then invest in an entirely new police facility.
The divide on the police station reflects the broader division on the cityâ€™s budget. Rhyne has called for spending cuts and tax reductions to ease the burden on citizens. The majority has suggested vital city services would suffer if taxes and spending were cut. Their argument isnâ€™t very convincing on this point either. For example, one proposed expense would have restructured city employee holiday bonuses to save money overall while putting more cash in the pockets of the lowest-paid employees. How would city services have been harmed by that reform?
That question isnâ€™t directly related to the police headquarters, but it raises doubts about the council majorityâ€™s credibility on this issue. Is the immediate renovation and expansion of the police facility truly a service that taxpayers are demanding?
What taxpayers seemed to be demanding during the last city election cycle in 2009 was change. For the first time in Lincolnton history, voters opted for bipartisan city government. They reinforced this trend in a 2010 special election.
With another city election looming in November, city leaders should consider deferring action on the police facility until the voters have spoken. The lines are clearly drawn. If the citizens defeat the mayor and re-elect the two members of the council majority who will be on the ballot, then they will have embraced the policies of the council majority and said they are willing to pay whatever it takes for city services and projects like immediate police office renovation. If voters instead keep the mayor and defeat one or more of the council majority members, they will have rejected those policies.
If city leaders rush action on the police headquarters before the election, they will commit city resources without first giving voters a chance to be heard. With an election coming so soon, the best way to keep faith with the citizens is to gauge voter sentiment before taking further action.
by Frank Taylor