Growing pains: St. Cloud public safety using closets as offices
Growing pains: St. Cloud public safety using closets as offices

Improving and expanding roads is a hot button issue tied to growth in Osceola County, but public safety officials in St. Cloud are facing their own unique infrastructure challenges.  

From 2010-17, St. Cloud added 13,440 residents – a 36 percent spike that made it the fastest growing city in a four-county region, according to last year’s U.S. Census Bureau data.

Now, the city’s fire and police departments are struggling to keep up. And they’re running out of room.

Police department needs

“We’ve commandeered every single closet in the building and turned them into offices,” Chief Pete Gauntlett said about St. Cloud’s current police headquarters.

The 20-year-old 23,000 square-foot facility on Neptune Road has long outgrown its purpose, Gauntlett said, and forced public safety officials to use military-grade storage containers to house police equipment and forensic evidence.

The city’s 911-dispatch operation is also at capacity.

Leasing office space or purchasing portable trailers is being considered since the building can’t physically expand anymore, Gauntlett said.

“Which goes against the grain of a functional department when you start to basically break up and decentralize your operation,” the police chief said.

Gauntlett and Fire Chief Joe Silvestries went before St. Cloud City Council on March 22 during a workshop meeting to discuss these and other issues facing the future public safety needs.

Staffing is another concern for police and fire. St. Cloud police will need to employ over 170 sworn officers by 2030 to meet state and federal service level standards. Basic calls for service are up to almost 82,000 a year and arrest rates are up 16 percent, Gauntlett said.

Fire department needs

The fire department is also struggling with staffing, but Silvestries said remaining vacancies weren’t filled because there’s no room for additional beds at any of the stations.

Call volume at St. Cloud fire stations are up 44 percent over the last decade, and response times are suffering - especially on the east side near where the new Tohoqua subdivision will debut, Silvestries said.

Three new fire stations are planned, with the first two estimated at a combined $10 million. But construction hasn’t begun on any of them.

Administration is housed at Fire Station 31 on Minnesota Avenue and has been at capacity since it was built in 2006. Storage rooms now function as offices and the conference room has been converted into a bunk room for firefighters, the chief said.

Like police headquarters, the fire administration building can’t expand its facility and the chief is looking at purchasing a portable across the street.

Recent fire department retirements have created a relatively young and inexperienced workforce in St. Cloud. Training and mentoring support will be critical to the department’s future, Silvestries said.

One central public safety facility

The city purchased 47 acres of land on Canoe Creek Road a few years ago. Public safety officials at the meeting suggested constructing a combined fire and police administration building there to house all primary public safety personnel - including code enforcement - within a 75,000 square-foot facility with a 8,400 square-foot garage.

“It would provide outstanding access and visibility,” Gauntlett said.

If planned and designed properly, the building could serve St. Cloud for 50 years.

But with a price tag of $37 million, Gauntlett and council members agreed the city would need to get creative to fund it. And it would still take at least two-in-a-half years to complete construction.

Gauntlett made some early suggestions, like using the current police department building – appraised at roughly $5 million – as collateral to offset some new facility costs, or exploring public-private partnership options with private investors.

Re-assessing public safety impact fees for developers could also help.

New fees were just adopted in 2016 but are mostly used to pay for new equipment since the fees didn’t include a provision for capital improvement projects - like the new public safety facility and fire stations, Gauntlett said.

“Let’s make sure we’re charging appropriately to at least make sure we’re putting dollars in the piggy bank for this,” said Council Member Keith Trace.

Council Member Dave Askew noted the importance of working with state and even federal politicians on public safety improvement projects early to help secure future funding and grants.

“It always feels like they join these conversations too late,” Askew said.

Gauntlett suggested City Council create a community task force of about 12 residents who could examine issues and funding, consult with public safety officials and draft recommendations to present to city council on an ongoing basis.

“One of the benefits of doing this is it provides direct input to council from citizens,” Gauntlett said. “The task force can keep you informed moving forward until we have a finished product to present.”

The take away

The City Council can’t take official action at workshop meetings, but members directed staff to add the creation of a community task force to the April 11 agenda.

Some task force members would be appointed by council, others could be appointed by public safety officials, Gauntlett said.

City Manager Bill Sturgeon said staff would explore a new impact fee study to include capital improvement projects.