Fayette County

Disaster center size, cost criticized

The ballooning cost and size of a proposed disaster headquarters for Lexington is drawing sharp criticism from some Urban County Council members and a pledge by Mayor Jim Newberry to search for cutbacks.

Some council members are concerned about the 20,000- square-foot size increase and the almost-double price tag for an emergency operations center that has been activated fewer than a dozen times in the last five years.

The building is an exercise in trying to live within the city's means, said Vice Mayor Jim Gray. "These numbers don't work, not in my world or in the world of taxpayers ... With the economy swirling, we need a reality check on things like this."

The original design of the Public Safety Operations Center, which will house a permanent nerve center for public safety officials during crises, called for a 30,000-square-foot building at a cost of $23 million.

The current proposal is a 48,500-square-foot building with an additional 1,500 square feet in two structures — an outbuilding to receive deliveries and a communications room for a 150-foot tower that will house antennas. Those structures, to be built at the Coldstream Research Park on Citation Boulevard, would cost $42.8 million.

Other council members say they would prefer the price to be lower, but they understand that technology is expensive and are comfortable with the price tag because of the role the building would serve.

Hopefully the city will never have another ice storm or a tornado, but the safety center is a good insurance policy, Councilman Julian Beard said. "You wouldn't dare not put automobile insurance on your car. You wouldn't dare not have insurance on your house."

The center is needed to house the city's emergency operations. When it is activated now, the emergency center is set up in the training room of the police department on Main Street.

In the last five years, the emergency operations center has been activated eight to 10 times for a period of four hours to eight days, as in the case of the 2003 ice storm, said Pat Dugger, the city's director of the Division of Emergency Management.

Plans for the new center have not been finalized.

The city is looking at ways to decrease the $42.8 million price tag, Newberry said in a statement.

"Public safety is always a top priority, but we feel there may be ways to cut down the cost of this project without compromising safety," he said. "We are evaluating what we can do to rein in costs."

The city began planning for the center four years ago. The original 30,000-square-foot proposal called for the building to have three main occupants: the emergency operations center, the city's enhanced 911 call center and the Division of Emergency Management.

The building had grown to 40,000 square feet by February of this year, when a decision was made to add space for the city's LexCall 311, operators and work space for the information technology workers who will maintain the building's data center, said David Lucas, the city's Enhanced 911 director.

"We were shortsighted and didn't put in a place for those people, the building operations, IT staff and radio staff," he said.

After the city hired architects to work on the project, another 10,000 square feet were added because they determined that the building needed additional mechanical space to house the redundant systems, Lucas said.

To meet Homeland Security standards, the building needs to have redundant systems such as two power sources, two fiber lines, two backup generators, two heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems, Lucas said.

The structure also has to be "hardened" and ballistic proof, able to withstand an F-4 tornado and a two-by-four hitting it at 180 mph, Lucas said.

Overall, the center will cost roughly $702 per square foot to build, Lucas said. The bricks and mortar portion will cost $389 per square foot, and the information technology portion is $313.

A bone of contention among some council members is the decision to move LexCall operators from Main Street offices to the new site and include office space for IT personnel.

Those employees do not need to be in the center, said Councilman Don Blevins Jr. "At $700 a square foot, do we really want to house our 311 operators at that expense? I certainly hope not."

Blevins has asked Newberry's administration to explain why those two groups need to be in the building.

"If not, we need to pull them out and shrink the design down," he said.

LexCall was included in the center because it uses the same telephone and computer network system that the E-911 call center and emergency operations use, Lucas said.

Even if the new center is built as designed without any revisions, it won't cost $42.8 million because that's the high end of the estimate, city officials say.

With a downturn in the construction business, "materials and labor should be very competitive right now," said Councilman Ed Lane. "So hopefully there can be major money squeezed out of the estimate. But we won't know until we do the building."

One thing the city hasn't addressed yet is how much it will cost to operate the facility. Lane has asked the administration to draw up a five-year estimate of the building's operational costs.