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City says evidence supports new warehouse

Law enforcement, animal control on ballot

In the dark and musty warehouse where Spokane police store cars used in crimes, the wooden floors are stained with leaked oil, and light from outside shines through slits in the walls.

A couple of miles away, not far from the County Courthouse, a newer warehouse – though still more than a half century old – houses more than 140,000 pieces of evidence gathered by police and sheriff’s investigators. There’s no sprinkler system in the building and it’s nearing capacity, officials say.

To Spokane Mayor Mary Verner and police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, the evidence used to solve crimes or keep bad guys behind bars is in a precarious situation.

“Not only is the facility not at standards it needs to be for protection of that evidence, but we’ve outgrown it,” Kirkpatrick said.

This week, ballots were mailed asking city voters if property owners should finance $18.5 million for improvements related to criminal justice and animal control. The largest item, constituting $11.5 million of the plan, would be devoted to a new police evidence building.

City officials estimate property owners would pay about $20 a year for a property assessed at $200,000.

To be counted, ballots must be postmarked by March 10. The measure needs 60 percent support to pass.

There’s no organized group opposing the measure, though some, such as City Councilman Bob Apple, have questioned if a new building is necessary and if it’s prudent to ask for more taxes during a recession.

Kirkpatrick said if evidence is damaged or lost, there’s a cost to justice and a potential for lawsuits.

“The economic times are horrible, but you will pay, and you’re going to pay one way or the other,” Kirkpatrick said. “To me, it’s just a business decision. Where do you want to pay?”

Though not explicitly advising a no vote, some county leaders have questioned if an evidence building is the highest priority among many criminal justice issues under debate, such as an overcrowded jail. A much larger tax proposal is expected to go on the ballot in November to replace Geiger Corrections Center.

“My concern is taxing out the citizens right now given the economic situation as well as not addressing this from a prioritized standpoint,” said County Commissioner Mark Richard.

Kirkpatrick said considering the police department’s needs, fixing evidence handling is her top priority. After the City Council rejected putting the tax on last November’s ballot, a City Council committee studied the issue and advised construction of a new building.

Spokane County owns the city’s current evidence building, which is on Gardner Avenue. The county pays the city a discounted rate to handle its evidence in exchange for providing the warehouse. It holds guns used in homicides, bats from assaults, computers from child porn and fraud cases and just about anything imaginable from other crimes. There’s a walk-in refrigerator for rape kits, a separate room for drug seizures, a few freezers, and an area in back devoted to cold cases.

Taxpayers outside the city would not be taxed for the new building even though the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office would use it. Kirkpatrick said the county will reimburse the city by continuing to contract with the department to handle evidence.

The new structure would be large enough to house cars currently stored by police in the wooden-floored warehouse. The sheriff’s office would maintain separate vehicle storage.

Shannon Hallam, Spokane’s facilities evidence supervisor, said the walk-in refrigerator is above capacity and she’s concerned that overpacking it could harm evidence. She added that she also is concerned about employee safety because the drug vault is not properly ventilated. In one location, evidence recently was moved to protect it from a leaking roof.

A Police Department fact sheet about the proposal says the building suffered structural damage from this season’s snowfalls. However, County Facilities Director Ron Oscarson said a structural engineer who examined the building determined that snow had not caused damage to the structure. He said the roof was replaced in 2002.

County Commissioner Bonnie Mager said county staff offered to provide police more than 3,000 extra square feet of space for evidence. The building currently is 17,000 square feet.

“The building isn’t falling down. It needs maybe a little upgrading,” Mager said. Hallam said taking the extra space and remodeling it would only help in the short term and wouldn’t solve the lack of sprinklers or other problems, including security concerns.

“The cost-to-benefit ratio is not there,” Hallam said.

Officials estimate that the department will need 57,000 square feet of space for evidence in 20 years. The proposed structure would be 52,000.

Although some county commissioners have questioned the expense, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich endorses the plan. “The preservation of evidence is one of the most important things that law enforcement does for the community,” Knezovich said. “There is a need for a new building.”

The new building would be constructed where some of Spokane’s street operations are located at 1433 N. Normandie St. Offices and vehicle storage would be moved to the city’s operation complex in the Chief Garry neighborhood.

For several years, the city has considered consolidating many of its public works departments in one spot. A portion of the street department already has moved. Public Works Director Dave Mandyke said a plan to finish the consolidation would move the city’s water, solid waste, street and fleet services departments from the Normandie site and from property at Hamilton Street and North Foothills Drive. Cost of the project would be about $50 million, he said, money that isn’t included in the ballot proposal.

Completion of the operations complex would be paid for with reserves and by borrowing. Mandyke said he won’t know if the expansion would force an increase in utility rates until a financial study is completed later this year.

Kirkpatrick and Knezovich say the Normandie property could become the future home of the police department and sheriff’s office. Kirkpatrick added, however, that an evidence building on the site would function fine even if the rest of the department never moves.

The property room “would be the anchor for that site and then over the long-term future, we’d move our operations there in a consolidated way,” Kirkpatrick said, stressing that the concept is in the early stages of discussion.

The second highest expense in the tax proposal is $4.2 million to expand the county’s animal shelter on Flora Road and for vehicles and other items needed to move forward with the city’s decision to use Spokane County Animal Protection Service to handle animal control.

The council made the decision to contract with the county last year after SpokAnimal C.A.R.E. indicated it no longer wanted to perform the service.

Verner said if the tax is rejected, she’ll talk with council members about dipping into reserves or other ways to finance construction at SCRAPS.

“Animal control is not optional,” Verner said. “In order to humanely and fairly address animal issues in the city we really need to enter into that agreement with SCRAPS and build that facility at SCRAPS.”