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City council approves moving police, fire to Showers

CFC Business Plaza at Showers

Bloomington’s main police station and fire administration will move to Showers, which is also the home of city hall. (Holden Abshier, WFIU/WTIU News)

Bloomington City Council members are moving forward with the mayor’s plan to buy a portion of the downtown Showers building to rehouse the city’s police and fire department headquarters. 

The 5-4 vote came after nearly three hours of heated debate between council members and representatives from the mayor’s office. 

Under Mayor John Hamilton’s plan, Bloomington’s main police station and fire administration will move to Showers, which is also the home of city hall. 

Councilman Dave Rollo, who opposed the plan, described conversations between the council and mayor’s office as “unsatisfactory” and said council members were initially not given enough time to make an informed decision. 

“I rarely feel such alarm as I do tonight,” Rollo said. “I’ve been on this council for 20 years, and I rarely feel that we’re at the stage of making a very bad decision to do harm for the community." 

Rollo advocated for other options and urged his colleagues to “do no harm,” for which he received pushback from Councilman Matt Flaherty. 

Background: Downtown fire department relocating to former law offices after flood damage 

“This idea of ‘do no harm’ — it’s often invoked to preserve the status quo,” Flaherty said. “The nature of policing and public safety is and should be changing and evolving. At a high level, I think that’s what this entire conversation is about.” 

Flaherty also engaged in a back-and-forth with Susan Sandberg, who rejected the notion that co-locating police and fire in the Showers building would make Bloomington a more progressive city. 

“We’re already a progressive community when it comes to public safety, and to say anything different is condescending to the very people who are doing their best to provide for the public safety of everybody who lives here,” Sandberg said. “They’re not a bunch of thugs out there wanting to pull their guns out on people. That isn’t happening here in Bloomington because we wouldn’t allow it.” 

Flaherty called Sandberg’s remark “absurd,” adding, “We’re differently oriented on this policy issue and a good many others, but I resent some of the language that’s being put in people’s mouths and characterizing what is a(n) otherwise simple debate.” 

The ordinance was supported by council member Jim Sims, who cast the deciding vote, as well as Kate Rosenbarger, Isabel Piedmont-Smith, Sue Sgambelluri and Flaherty. It was rejected by Stephen Volan, Ron Smith, Sandberg and Rollo. 

Council rejects amendment to strike Showers from consideration 

Before council members could vote on the ordinance to appropriate $29.5 million in bond proceeds — including $8.75 million for the purchase of Showers — they had to consider an amendment sponsored by Smith. 

The amendment, which failed by 4-5, sought to strike from the ordinance the council’s approval of the Showers building purchase. Had the amendment passed, it would have advanced the appropriation of the $29.5 million in bonds but left ambiguous how those funds would be used. 

Some council members asked Deputy Mayor Mary Catherine Carmichael what alternatives the mayor’s office might consider if the amendment had passed. Carmichael did not provide a definitive answer. 

Read more: City council again postpones vote on relocation of fire, police HQ 

She made one thing clear, however: the mayor’s office did not intend to move forward with an expansion to the current police headquarters on East Third Street. That option was preferred by members of the police union. 

“We don’t believe in the overall quality of the (Third Street) building,” said Carmichael. “We don’t think that’s a wise investment and don’t feel good about moving it forward.” 

When it came time to vote on the amendment, Volan paused for several seconds before rejecting it. 

The amendment was opposed by Sims, Volan, Rosenbarger, Flaherty and Piedmont-Smith. It was supported by Smith, Sandberg, Rollo and Sgambelluri. 

Traffic safety concerns at Showers 

Rollo repeatedly said 100% of rank-and-file police officers were opposed to the Showers plan in part because of potential hazards surrounding ingress and egress. Others on the council questioned that figure, arguing there is no solid date to substantiate it. 

Rollo cited the Showers building’s proximity to the B-Line Trail as a potential safety hazard and questioned why a traffic study hadn’t been conducted at the facility. 

“How can you have any confidence that the existing infrastructure is capable of safely being available for the police to use?” Rollo asked. “This is absolutely essential. It seems to me the safety component of whether this building is functional or not resides on a quantitative analysis of some sort.” 

Police Chief Michael Diekhoff, who supports the Showers plan, said only about 20-to-30% of emergency police response calls depart from police headquarters. Officers are usually dispatched while on patrol, he said. 

Read more: City Council considers 3 options for police, fire headquarters 

Diekhoff acknowledged that officers had voiced concerns over ingress and egress but said the current police headquarters is already in a high-pedestrian area, not unlike Showers. 

Fire Chief Jason Moore also supports co-location. He said members of the fire department, which has been situated adjacent to the B-Line Trail in the interim, have had few problems leaving the station. 

Contingency plans, structural soundness 

The plan to rehouse police and fire was prompted by flash floods in 2021 that damaged both departments’ headquarters. Some council members pondered whether housing police and fire under one roof is wise, should another catastrophic event occur. 

Moore assured the council that emergency services would build a continuity of operations plan in case of another disaster. 

“When you talk about ‘what-ifs,’ that’s the world we live in,” Moore said. “With this being a pending plan, we haven’t gone through that process — but I assure you that if this is the plan, or if another plan is created, those cognitive operations plans will be developed, and we would have a backup should something happen. Because we do not and cannot fail.” 

Rollo said the Showers building, which was constructed in 1910, can’t be upgraded to meet Category 4 building standards, which newly constructed police stations are required to meet. 

“It’s hard to evaluate a building where you don’t know exactly what sort of natural disaster it could withstand,” Rollo said. “It makes a good office building, but maybe (it’s) not well-suited for disaster.” 

Carmichael acknowledged the Showers building’s age but noted that its mechanical and functional portions are closer to 25 years old, as they were overhauled in the mid-1990s. 

Council not listening to police union?

Rollo and Sandberg both voiced concerns that their colleagues were not listening to police union representatives who had expressed their opposition to the Showers plan. 

Union members shared those sentiments. 

“(The mayor) chose to paint himself as knowing better the needs of the police rather than listen to the police employees themselves,” said Fraternal Order of Police President Paul Post. “Repurposing a historic building is usually a noble cause, yes, but it’s not always a good fit for the proposed occupants — especially ones with very specific job needs.” 

Read more: Police union doubles down on opposition to rehousing HQ 

The police union has disputed the city’s cost estimates of the plan to renovate and expand the existing police department building. Rollo said it was “entirely conceivable” that option might cost considerably less than the city said. 

Sandberg took issue with the fact that police union members were given three minutes each to make their case, which is the amount of time allowed by each public commentator at city council meetings. 

She said union representatives were being treated as members of the public when they should be treated as stakeholders. 

Mayor’s opposition to BPD expansion 

Council members also questioned what funds would have been used to expand the existing police headquarters, had they moved forward with that option. That’s because the mayor’s administration has said it wouldn’t approve the use of recently-approved bonds for that purpose, although it would support the renovation. 

The short answer is that the council would have to approve a general obligation bond, which would increase the property tax rate. 

Piedmont-Smith was opposed to that alternative since the council has recently increased local income taxes. 

Sandberg criticized the mayor’s administration for what she called a “flat-out refusal” to cooperate with the city council. 

“I took it kind of as a threat, that if we go in that direction, then we as a council will be forced to raise more taxes next year in order to get funding to do the addition,” Sandberg said. “It just seems like there’s, again, some holding our feet to the fire and forcing us into decisions that nobody wants to make.” 

Read more: Bloomington council approves $30 million bond but questions city hall expansion 

As part of that discussion, council members touched on a $1 million gap resulting from an excess in projected bond proceeds. 

Rollo asked Carmichael what money would be used to fill that gap. Her response, “I don’t know,” received an immediate and sharp “Neither do we” from Rollo. 

“I think we’re being played here, and I resent it deeply,” Rollo said. “I would appeal to my colleagues to stop the Stockholm Syndrome, or whatever we’re operating under right now.” 

Rollo pushed further, asking the corporation counsel for her opinion of Mayor Hamilton. In response, Volan called a point of order and said Rollo’s question was not appropriate. 

Flaherty later responded to Rollo’s “Stockholm Syndrome” comment. 

“The idea that (Hamilton) isn’t willing to bring an appropriation for an investment he thinks is an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars — regardless of what any council member thinks — is not a threat,” Flaherty said. “It is not coercion. It is not playing the council. It is not Stockholm Syndrome. I think all of (this) is reflective of the hyper-polarization of this discussion, and politicization, frankly, with inflammatory language that significantly mischaracterizes the facts, as well as what people are saying.” 

What’s next? 

It’s now up to the mayor to sign off on the approved ordinance. 

Mayor’s office spokesman Andrew Krebbs said the city plans to sell the current police headquarters and use those proceeds to help offset the price of the new location. 

Krebbs said the estimated $3 million for the sale of the current BPD headquarters is “considerably underestimated.” 

In addition to the excess bond proceeds, Krebbs said there will be lease revenue from the remaining tenants in the Showers building. 

The relocation of police and fire into Showers is part of a larger plan estimated at $34 million which includes the reconstruction of two flood-damaged fire stations and the construction of a new fire training facility.

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