Kent and county in talks to build new safety center

Steven Bushong

Downtown Kent could be the location of a new safety center as early as 2009, officials said. The center would be one building that combines both Kent Police and the Municipal Court.

Though the joint-facility project has not advanced beyond discussion, the city has devoted some money into research, and the county has expressed its interest. Both governments have the desire to upgrade their facilities.

Safety Director William Lillick said the police department is woefully inadequate, especially in its jail area, which is too small, has low air circulation and needs an improved area for juveniles.

“The cells are barely adequate for one person, but we put two bunks in it,” Lillick said. “There’s no natural light, which is a big kicker.”

The jail is below state standards, but Lillick said the state has “grandfathered” the department because the jail’s construction preceded the standards and it has promised to make improvements. The department also needs storage and upgrades to its communication systems.

The Municipal Court, on the other hand, was originally built as a post office near the turn of the century and lacks essential elements expected in a court, Portage County Commissioner Chris Smeiles said. Oftentimes, plaintiffs and defendants are expected to wait for a hearing in the same room.

“Right now, the holding area is in the hallway with all the rest of the citizens,” Smeiles said. “We shackle prisoners to the bench, and guess who else is on the bench? You and me and everyone else.”

The court also lacks jury and conference rooms.

Though a location for the building hasn’t been decided, officials said they’re looking toward downtown Kent.

“A lot of the community seems to think that it benefits them to have the police department and the court close to downtown,” Lillick said. “But we don’t have any specific sights identified.”

The county has not laid money into the project, but Smeiles said the county can be relied upon to pay its fair share of the costs, as it’s previously partnered on projects with the city and has an ongoing working relationship with it.

But it’s too early to determine what that fair share may be.

The city has paid local architect David Sommers about $10,000 to determine the square footage of the proposed building, and City Council voted in September to approve a five-year capital improvement plan that included $300,000 for the design of a new police department.

Sommers said after talking to judges, the court clerk and others, he’ll determine the building’s necessary square footage within the next month. It will then be up to the city to decide what to do. It could go on to hire an architect.

A new police department could cost $5 million to $6 million, Lillick said. That figure does not include the county’s portion of costs.

Kent began planning for new police and fire departments in 1995. Today, the fire department is built, but the police department, parts of which date to the 1920s and has grown with need, remains out of date.

Lillick said major benefits of a joint facility include cost cutting and improved security.

Transporting prisoners from a jail cell to a court room could involve simply using an elevator to go up or down a floor, rather than putting the prisoner in a cruiser and transporting them to the court.

And Lillick said a new police department would benefit the public and local businesses, too.

“It will enable us to provide better service, provide more efficient service” he said.

“It could provide some impetus for development because sometimes new building begets new building, although there is cost associated with that,” he said.

Contact assistant news editor Steven Bushong at [email protected].