(EDITOR’S NOTE: A number of local government bodies across Lycoming County this year have expressed interest in erecting public safety buildings and consolidating services. Today the Sun-Gazette begins a five-day series to explore this trend.)
What began as a coroner’s plea for new space, a “meet-and-greet” between county commissioners and City Council five years ago, and concern over a number of aging buildings has four government agencies across Lycoming County pitching “public safety buildings.”
There is no set definition of what a public safety building is, but all public safety buildings try to consolidate different entities under one roof to save costs, consolidate services and promote efficiency and teamwork.
A Williamsport public safety building would relocate the city police and fire departments to a new shared location where they have room to tailor their headquarters to their departments’ functions. It would place them in a modernized building alongside the city codes department, with the potential for a partnership with UPMC.
Meanwhile, Lycoming County is in the process of appraising a Newberry building to potentially consolidate offices such as central processing, the DUI center and supervised bail. The project also looks at placing the county coroner’s office into a much-needed expanded space to allow its staff to efficiently and safely process the deceased in the county. Finally, the county is interested in moving District Judge Christian Frey’s office to the Newberry neighborhood.
Jersey Shore is seeking grant funding for a public safety building that would place the Tiadaghton Valley Regional Police and the Citizen Hose Co. in one building, an upgrade from each of their current facilities, both of which are in the borough’s flood plain.
Meanwhile, South Williamsport Borough intends to erect a new building to move its borough police and municipal offices into a modernized structure.
Each government agency has unique reasons as to why they are pursuing the projects, but money and efficiency are at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
Although these buildings will cost millions of dollars, public officials behind the projects are hoping to offload the cost onto grants from the state and federal government, and reap the savings gained by sharing utilities and personnel costs required to staff the buildings.
Grant money is best obtained when local groups band together to leverage support for a joint expenditure they want to buy, according to Scott Metzger, county commissioner.
“We have to start to regionalize, consolidate and leverage our dollars in order to get things done,” Metzger said.
Commissioner Tony Mussare said consolidating government offices into the same building saves costs due to one shared heating bill. It also allows departments to share services such as information technology or janitorial staff.
“We can’t continue to tax ourselves out of this,” Mussare said.
Although the projects are a move toward a more spatially consolidated government, they also represent a thread of renewal to bring each of the departments’ facilities up to standard.
Many of the police and fire departments looking to move into new public safety buildings are located in older buildings that officials say do not meet the modern needs of the departments.
For example, the Tiadaghton Valley Regional Police headquarters was originally designed for about seven borough police officers. Since then, the department has grown to cover a larger geographic area and has 12 officers on the regionalized force’s team.
City police, on the other hand, are located inside City Hall, a historical building that originally served as the local Post Office, while the city fire department is headquartered on Walnut Street.
All public safety building projects are in the very early stages of development.
And while the county commissioners have been very forthcoming with their desire to form partnerships with the city and municipalities to help push for more grant dollars, formal arrangements do not yet exist.