Money wasted on Raleigh safety center?

RALEIGH When the $205 million Lightner Public Safety Center was voted down last week, city councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin was quick to point fingers.

"I'm appalled and frustrated by this," she said. "I have sat here for two years, while Crowder and Stephenson have sat here for five years."

Baldwin is referring to her colleagues Thomas Crowder and Russ Stephenson, who supported the Lightner Center from the beginning.

Like Baldwin, they voted to spend about $28 million on the project so far. If the money hasn't been spent already, the City is contractually obligated to pay it.

"If you had concerns, you should have brought them up two years ago, three years ago, four years ago, five years ago," Baldwin said.

More than half of the almost $30 million went to buying and upgrading other police facilities. Stephenson says he doesn't see that as waste.

As for the rest of the money, he says most of it paid for information that can be used again.

"To understanding what their needs were, what kind of space they need, what kind of technology issues had to be worked out," Stephenson said.

Nonetheless, both Crowder and Stephenson push a lot of the blame onto City Manager Russell Allen.

"Staff kept this project very close internally," Stephenson said.

Stephenson says he and his colleagues were largely excluded from many decisions early on - as were city and county experts. He says they were never asked for their opinions.

"None of those people were involved in the decision to pick this particular site and this particular program stacked up on that sight," Stephenson said. "That kind of expert information is something that, in my view, the city manager should have brought to city council."

However, Allen told ABC11 Eyewitness News that he managed the project as he would any city project and said councilors were always free to ask questions.

But Stephenson's counterpoint is they would need all the information to know what questions to ask.

In the meantime, some ideas of where to go from here have been floated, but none - at this point - have majority support.

Coming up with a plan for what's next will likely fall to one of the four councilors who voted no, because some supporters - including the mayor - maintain the plan they had is still the best plan and there's no reason to look further.

But with the council split, other ideas will be needed and some are out there.

"If we can build this building on a less vulnerable site and we don't have to do all this expensive armoring of the building, can we actually end up saving money in the long-run and have a safer facility," Stephenson said.

There's also been talk of splitting up the project.

A memo, co-written by Stephenson, suggests a phased approach building a new emergency operations center first - perhaps, on one of three alternate sites scattered around the city.

Stephenson also suggests capitalizing on current low interest rates, despite last week's vote.

"Even if we're not ready to build immediately, let's go ahead and borrow the money it would take to do the project," he said.

But after five years of debate, minds have largely been made up and positions entrenched.

Getting past that will be critical to the future of emergency operations in Raleigh.

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