Milford hopes referendum in January will fund new police station

MILFORD — At its Monday meeting, City Council approved a January referendum, hoping to increase property taxes to fund a new police station.

According to Brenden Frederick, an architect working with the city on the project, the cost of building the new police station, at 409 N.E. Front St., has increased 3%, or about $500,000, since the city first looked into the project last year.

“That number is what we call our industry escalation factor,” he said. “That number vacillates over the years. I’ve seen industry reports where that number can be flat annually, or it can be as high as 10%.”

Now, he expects the new building to cost $18,900,178. If construction had begun as initially planned before COVID-19 delayed the project, it would have only cost $18,429,000, he said.

Mr. Frederick noted that once the city enters into an agreement with its contractor, which will be Lincoln’s Richard Y. Johnson & Son, the number gets locked in.

“What you would want to anticipate is, say you delay the project another year,” he said. “You would then want to reevaluate on an annual basis.”

The city hopes to fund the project via a $20 million bond issuance to be paid back over 30 years, according to a letter City Manager Mark Whitfield wrote to the council and the mayor.

The letter states that funding this will require a property tax increase of 0.115%. For someone whose property is worth $200,000, this will average out to an additional $19.15 a month or about $230 per year.

The city plans to hold a referendum on both the bond issuance and the property tax increase Jan. 30.

Mayor Archie Campbell had a number of questions about the state of the municipal bond market and how the city can get the most bang for its buck. Milford’s Finance Manager Lou Vitola discouraged him from trying to game the market.

“In a project like this, if there’s a genuine need for a project, and especially if we go to a referendum and the referendum is passed, we should worry less about the interest rate and the timing of the bond issuance against the market and more about making sure we have the ability to provide an adequate funding source and lock it in at a fixed rate and then establish a revenue stream to pay for it,” Mr. Vitola said.

“Where cities get in trouble is if you either rush to do something or purposely put something off in an effort to kind of grab or aggressively hustle after a certain market condition, because it’s fleeting, and it can go away,” he said.

“I’d like to allow finance to be more of a back-office function that’s going to help the city solve this problem, and when it is time to go to market, at that time, we’ll make the most advantageous bond sale,” Mr. Vitola said.

Also Monday night, the city’s Police Committee met to get the ball rolling on a study exploring the possibility of a new behavioral health unit for the police department.

“The whole ask here is for the city of Milford’s council to consider having a feasibility study done to determine whether a behavioral health unit would be beneficial to the city of Milford’s citizens and to the police department,” said Vice Mayor Jason James.

He said there are many other law enforcement organizations nearby that have programs like this, including the New Castle County Police Department, and that federal and state money would likely be available to help fund a potential program.

“The behavioral health unit is really made up of two parts,” Vice Mayor James said, “a mental health segment and a drug addiction segment. So when there’s a 911 emergency call that’s primarily related to mental health or drug addiction, then the behavioral health unit would be the first responders, along with a police officer, as needed.”

He said the mental health professionals “would see that case from A to Z, leaving the police officers to deal with other things that are criminal.”

Milford Police Chief Kenneth Brown was on board with the feasibility study.

“There are departments that I’ve read about across the nation that are really in the infancy of this, and I think a feasibility study would be a good thing to do,” he said.

The discussion came in the wake of a January shooting in which Brandon Roberts, who was reportedly suffering from a mental health episode, was shot and killed by a Milford Police Department officer. In August, the Delaware Department of Justice determined that the use of deadly force was immediately necessary in that situation.

Reach staff writer Noah Zucker at nzucker@newszap.com