New police station coming? Milford residents to vote on proposal Jan. 26

Milford Police Department Chief Kenneth Brown walks out of the city police station, which opened in 1979 and has become increasingly cramped and outdated. Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller

MILFORD — Residents have an important decision to make later this month.

The city of Milford’s plan to borrow up to $20 million and raise city property taxes to fund construction of a new police station will be decided by voters in a Jan. 26 referendum.

Chief Kenneth Brown of the Milford Police Department naturally favors the project.

“We just don’t have the space here necessary to do police work,” he said.

The building was constructed in 1979, and at the time there were 18 officers.

“It was built for a maximum of 22 officers,” the chief said. “Today we have 37 officers.”

That metric doesn’t even include the department’s support personnel, which Chief Brown said has also doubled its ranks in 40-plus years.

He said officers often sit in the station’s parking lot to do their paperwork. They have more space and privacy in their squad cars than in their offices.

“We have modified this building in every way possible as we grew, and there’s just no room left,” the chief said.

Mayor Archie Campbell said that as the city continues to grow, the police station needs to expand with it.

“We don’t have a choice, to be honest,” he said.

“Look at the growth of Milford. It’s the fastest-growing city in the state of Delaware,” Mayor Campbell said.

He pointed out that when he moved to the city in 2006, it had around 7,500 people. Now he said there are more than 12,000.

“More homes, more people, more crime,” the mayor said.

The current station isn’t just overcrowded, it’s outdated.

“Our officers shouldn’t have to sit in such crowded conditions in an antiquated building,” said Milford resident Gloria Markowitz.

“They deserve a modern police station with modern amenities,” she said.

Out of date

“There’s no sally port,” the chief said, referring to an enclosed driveway most modern police stations have where officers can easily transfer prisoners from a car into the station.

“In today’s times, you really should have a sally port that you drive into or that goes down.”

At present, officers simply pull into the parking lot next to the station and walk prisoners into the building, which makes it easier to make a haphazard escape attempt across busy Del. 14.

Milford Police Department Chief Kenneth Brown enters a police car outside the city station that was built in 1979.

“Or they run into the (Mispillion) river, and now they potentially drown because they’re handcuffed behind their back,” said the chief.

The station wouldn’t be in a much better position if a detainee escaped while already inside the facility.

“If a prisoner got loose, he has access to the entire building, which is bad for civilian personnel,” Chief Brown said.

In addition to the extra liability the facility’s escape concerns add, the chief said they keep the department from being accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

“We’re working very hard to get accredited,” the chief said. “We can’t even be accredited in this building.”

Soon, Chief Brown expects that a CALEA accreditation will be essentially mandatory given all the additional scrutiny police departments have come under in recent years.

“We’re putting our necks on the chopping block every day because we can’t possibly function the way today’s society demands that you function,” he said.

Additionally, the current station is just yards from the banks of the Mispillion River, which is not a good spot when it comes to potential flooding.

The site for the new station across the street is on higher ground. The chief estimated that the second floor of the current building would be roughly level with the first floor of the new building.

“That hill is probably the highest place in Milford,” he said. “If we had a disaster, this would be the command center for the city. It doesn’t make sense to have that in a flood plain.”

Dissenters

Not everybody in Milford believes the station is a good idea.

“That ($20 million) sure would help house and feed a lot of our local truly homeless and some of the poor whose kids go to bed hungry every night, but our police want a fancy new station,” said one commenter on a Nextdoor post about the police station.
“I guess they are more important than just people,” he said.

That sentiment was shared to a degree by Milford resident Janice Mitchell.

“They deserve something better” than the current police station, she said, but not “this one big, glorious building with a bunch of wasted square footage.”

Chief Brown said he hopes to use some of that square footage to build stronger ties with the community.

Chief Brown points to where the new Milford Police Department complex will be constructed across the street from the current location if approved by a referendum scheduled for Jan. 26.

Ms. Mitchell, who said she supports the police department, took issue with what she understood as the spectacle of the project.

“I sat back and looked at it and said, ‘This is ridiculous for a town of this size.’ Fine, we’re growing, but you know sooner or later that building’s not going to be of any use either,” she said.

She had an alternative idea for how the police department should expand.

“I would rather have them open satellites instead of having one big building where they’re all located,” Ms. Mitchell said. “There needs to be several buildings. Not one building.”

Her idea, which she said “could be done with trailers, I hate to say,” would locate pockets of officers in different neighborhoods around the city.

Another commenter was worried about potential traffic issues the new station could bring to the neighborhood.

“I understand the town needs a new police (station), but I worry about the flow of traffic on Fourth Street,” she said.

A third commenter agreed.

“Increased traffic would be an issue, especially with the parked cars on both sides of the street as only (one) can get through… at a time,” she said.

This commenter was also worried about the impact this civic project and others would have on her taxes.

“Although having a new building is a great idea, people need to consider the real cost for this on everyone,” she said.

“Everyone knows that groceries cost more, plus the overall cost of living, which really impacts those on fixed incomes like low income and seniors,” the third commenter said. “If people can’t live with the increased taxes they will move out, leaving more cost for everyone left.”

Ms. Mitchell was also not happy with the prospect of her taxes going up, but said she wouldn’t be unhappy with having her taxes raised for a new building that, “makes sense.”

Finances and tax increases

Ms. Markowitz was not concerned by the tax issue.

“I have no problem with the tax increase. I’ll just have to cut back somewhere else,” she said. “I feel that strongly about having that new police station there for our officers.”

Lou Vitola, Milford’s finance director, has been hard at work for the last few months weighing different paths the city could take to fund construction.

At present, he and the city council are most interested in borrowing the money they need from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has loans available for towns of 10,000 people or less through its Rural Development Program. Milford recently grew past that cutoff, so the town needs to capitalize on its opportunity to work with USDA before the 2020 census results go into effect.

If the referendum were to pass, the city would be permitted to borrow up to $20 million over the course of two decades, but if the project costs less, the city will borrow less money.

At present, there are a range of estimates regarding how much the project will cost, but it will likely cost less than early estimates, as the city will not be required to pay prevailing wages as many government projects are. Instead, they can go with the cheapest labor option available.

Milford Police Department Chief Kenneth Brown reviews the site plan for the new police department located across the street from the current headquarters.

Mr. Vitola has put together a chart so property owners can better understand how their finances would be impacted.

The city estimates that if the project were to cost only $12.5 million, someone with assessed property value of $100,000 would pay $57 in additional property taxes annually and someone with property assessed at $500,000 would pay an additional $287.

If the project were to end up costing $20 million, someone with property assessed at $100,000 would pay $92 in additional property taxes annually and someone with property assessed at $500,000 would pay an additional $459.

See City of Milford chart with tax increase information.

Mayor Campbell understands the concerns many residents have about potential tax increases.

“I’m retired, fixed-income,” he said. “We’re all going to be looking at it like, ‘Geez. How much more money is this going to cost me?’”

This was part of the reason he wanted to add a citizens advisory board to the process.

Advisory committee and public relations

At Monday night’s council meeting, the names of those picked to serve on that board will be announced.

“I think people in the city should have a voice in this. It shouldn’t just be the city council, the mayor and the city manager,” Mayor Campbell said. “This is for the protection of the community, so the community should be involved.”

He said the committee will contain a diverse mix of residents from all of Milford’s four wards.

“Some are just regular citizens. Some are business owners. I have one that’s a teacher,” the mayor said. “We’ll probably have two or three meetings with them before the actual referendum vote.”

The city is looking for feedback on the design and cost of the project from this group. But ultimately the city council will make decisions about the project’s potential course for the city at large to vote on.

“It’s strictly an opinion,” the mayor said of this committee. “We just want to see what they think.”

But the city’s leadership does have a vested interest in convincing its citizens to vote in favor of the referendum. As a result, it has hired some contractors in the world of media and public relations.

“We did hire a photographer who did interviews and a couple of film clips,” the mayor said. “It’s not really a big PR firm. We didn’t have that kind of money.”

Those photos, interviews with locals and key information about the project can be found at https://milfordpoliceplan.com, a site the city has created to promote the new police station.

Chief Brown said the firm that helped build the site and create its content is called Hook Public Relations and Marketing.

“With this PR firm, we spent a few thousand dollars with them over the last year or so,” he said.

Additionally, the chief said the city has hired a part-time public relations representative “helping us get things out there.”

Chief Brown has been putting in a lot of work himself promoting the project. In addition to fielding questions from residents on Nextdoor, he’s designed and placed yard signs in support of the project all around town.

Ms. Markowtiz believes this is something the police department deserves.

“Recent events have shown us that these officers have a dangerous job and they put their lives on the line for our residents and we should be taking the best care possible for them,” she said.