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County looks to build new emergency communications center

St. Charles County officials are closer to moving ahead with building a multi-million dollar emergency communications and operations center.

The center could be located on 10 acres of land behind the county police department’s headquarters off T.R. Hughes Drive in O’Fallon. And it could be built using a different design and construction method than used before on other county public works projects.

Joann Leykam, the county’s director of administration, and other county officials briefed the County Council during its work session on Aug. 31 about the need, possible design, timetable, and cost of the new building. The council then gave its OK to considering an ordinance that would allow the county to take a less than traditional approach to construction of the center.

Leykam said a “worst case” cost estimate for the 41,000-square-foot, two-story center is about $33 million. The center would be funded largely with revenue from a 1/4-cent sales tax for capital improvements designated as a “capital fund” in the county budget. County voters renewed the capital fund sales tax in 2009, increasing it from a 1/5-cent tax.

The county has been setting aside revenue from that sales tax and should have about $10 million available in the 2016 county budget to begin the project, Leykam said. The county expects to allocate about $1.6 million annually from its capitol fund to pay for the new center. The capital fund sales tax generates $10 million to $11 million annually, Leykam said.

If given the go-ahead, design work could begin in 2016 and construction in 2017, she added. Construction could take about two years.

The discussion about building a new center isn’t new. Last September, the council reviewed design plans from a consulting firm, Ross & Baruzzini, which was directed to design a data center in the county administration building for the county’s emergency radio system. The firm also examined space issues and gathered information for a master plan for using the 10-acre tract.

Leykam and Jennifer George, the county’s assistant director of administration, along with Cory Bextermueller, the county’s construction manager, reviewed Ross & Baruzzini’s recommendations and took the bulk of the questions from the council.

A new center is needed for a multitude of reasons, Leykam said. The county is running out of space for data and record storage, there isn’t room for training and meetings, and the county will need more space as it continues to grow.

“We’re simply out of space,” Leykam said in reference to the county Dispatch and Alarm Center in Wentzville. There isn’t enough space for dispatchers or training, she added.

Leykam said the county has a bad working situation at the existing emergency operations center, located in the Justice Center basement, where water pipes pose a danger to data and equipment.  Thirty years of inmate use and toilets being jammed have caused flooding that has damaged radio equipment.

The center also has very little space where emergency responders from multiple jurisdictions can  meet when responding to emergencies.

She said the county also needs a more modern facility for its new emergency radio system that allows better communications between emergency responders.

Councilmembers said a tour of the county’s center and other facilities was eye-opening.

“We need something better than that,” said Councilmember Joe Cronin (District 1).

Councilmember Mike Elam (District 3) agreed.

“If there is a disaster that goes on, and we need to get the players who need to be in here all together, there aren’t enough chairs to go around,” he said. “That looks really bad. It kind of puts a bit of fear into you when you go and ask how have you managed to make this work.”

The new center would provide more space for dispatching, radio equipment, training, meetings and storage. The center also could include a media room to hold news conferences, more room for emergency responders and police, and space that possibly could be shared with the city of O’Fallon. The center would be built to withstand earthquakes and severe tornadoes.

County Police Chief David Todd said the building has to be built strong enough not only to withstand a tornado but also allow emergency responders to continue to work while a storm rages outside.

“We have to continue to do business, we have to have faith in this building,” Todd said. “So we (need to) build it strong the first time.”

Councilmembers said they liked the work done so far.  Councilmember Mike Klinghammer (District 6) said that whatever the county builds it has to keep in mind the space it will need for the next 20 years as the county continues to grow.

To meet that need, the county also may look at an additional 15 acres near the police headquarters, officials have said.

“Rather than build the Taj Mahal that looks fantastic, we’re getting an effective building that gives us everything we need without going crazy on it,” Elam said.

But Councilman Joe Brazil (District 2), the council chairman, cautioned that the county administration still needs to provide more detailed estimates of upkeep needed. Administrators did present the council with a five-year capital improvement plan at its Aug. 31 meeting that listed facility needs.

To build the communications center, St. Charles County may opt to follow St. Louis County, which recently built its own emergency response center using an alternate construction method.

The traditional approach is for a public body to bid out for design services, then seek new bids on a construction project. That method often prompts change orders and additional expenses.  Leykam said St. Louis County was able to save money and construction time by using a “design build” approach to the work.

Design build places the sole responsibility for design and construction on a single successful bidder. County Executive Steve Ehlmann said the county had a great experience when the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) took a similar approach to building the third and final phase of Hwy. 364.

Ehlmann said certain conditions were laid out before the contract was awarded and contractors were told that $100 million was all that was available for the work.

Cronin and other councilmembers who have seen St. Louis County’s facilities said while the cost savings was real, St. Louis County officials there didn’t consult police and emergency responders enough about their needs – something county officials stressed they would do before building the center in St. Charles County.

Leykam said the council may be asked in coming weeks to consider an ordinance that would allow a design build method to be used along with traditional bidding.

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