LOWER TOWNSHIP — Council voted unanimously Monday night to hire an architect to design and get cost estimates for a new police station that would be constructed next to Township Hall in the Villas section.

The police were originally in the Villas but were moved to the airport in 1995 when the county gave them a massive building for just $1 a year. The “bargain,” according to Mayor Mike Beck, backfired when the building needed $4.1 million in work. Now it needs roof work at a potential cost of $2.5 million.

Monday’s 5-0 vote stopped short of full support to go ahead with the project. Several members of council had concerns about the costs and wanted more data. They will get another chance to vote on the project when a bond ordinance with more exact figures is introduced.

Township Manager Mike Voll estimated the costs at $3.5 million to $3.8 million but acknowledged it was not an exact figure. It did not include the cost of moving dispatch to the new building as the township is awaiting a pending decision from Cape May County on whether to build a countywide dispatch system. It may not have included the full costs of jail cells and bringing the Municipal Court back with the police.

Republican Councilman Tom Conrad pushed for a public referendum on the issue but did not get any support.

“I have questions I thought would be answered tonight. They haven’t. I want solid numbers, no estimates. There are too many don’t knows,” said Conrad.

Republican Erik Simonsen also had concerns but voted to hire an architect. He wanted to know about additional costs such as moving dispatch but also what would happen to the Rescue Squad and Bureau of Fire Safety, which also use the building. Voll said they could continue to use the airport building.

“I think we’re all on board with moving forward but we need specific numbers,” said Simonsen. “I don’t think we can promise $3.8 million if other things come up.”

The three independents on council, including Beck, Deputy Mayor Norris Clark and Councilman Jim Neville were in full support.

Beck argued the intrinsic value of a police station is lost by putting it in the back of an airport. He said a police station is “the perception of safety.”

“Seeing a sign that says ‘police’ gives residents a sense of security. We lost that value by putting it in the back of an airport,” Beck said.

Clark noted the building is costing $178,000 a year in service calls and utilities while its flat roof needs major work. He said most police stations are with other municipal services.

Neville said he toured the building with Police Chief William Mastriana and saw empty rooms the township is heating. There are 65 rooms for police alone. Utility costs are $95,000 a year.

The police moved in 1995 from a 4,200-square-foot building that was too small to a 55,000-square-foot building that is too big. Leaks in the flat roof have led to mold issues and lawsuits from workers there.

“It seems we’re putting good money after bad over there. It’s time to do something right,” Neville said.

Mastriana, who has to walk 260 feet from his office to greet a member of the public, said the building is too large. He also said most calls come from the Villas and North Cape May and being at the airport, which is in Erma, is a disadvantage, especially for fighting the war on drugs. He said there is also no public transportation to get to the police or courts.

“I believe the public safety of our citizens should not be judged on a dollar amount,” said Mastriana.

Voll said this is the optimal time because the township is retiring some debt and could bond the project with no increase in the tax rate, especially since interest rates are historically low.

Voll said a new building would also be constructed to withstand natural disasters and be handicapped compliant.

The new building would be 12,600 square feet, with a 1,700 square foot garage, on the south side of Township Hall. The township has already purchased a lot for the added parking.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711

Senior copy editor for the Press of Atlantic City. Have worked as a reporter, copy editor and news editor with the paper since 1985. A graduate of the University of Delaware.