The long quest for city-county agreement on a new law enforcement training center is nearing an end.
Sedgwick County and the city of Wichita unanimously approved a letter of intent Tuesday to build a new training center at Wichita State University’s Innovation Campus.
Both the Wichita City Council and the Sedgwick County Commission still need to approve the $9.5 million proposal in a formal vote.
But it’s a huge step in a years-long effort to find a new place for Wichita police officers and Sedgwick County sheriff’s deputies to train together.
Can’t we all just get along?
Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell
“This day is very welcome for me,” said Commissioner Tim Norton, the longest-tenured county commissioner. “It’s sad we’ve languished at times trying to figure this out.”
The city and county also adopted an agreement for Sedgwick County Fire District 1’s use of the city-owned Regional Training Center for the county’s firefighters.
The agreements came at a meeting early Tuesday between City Council members and county commissioners. These rare joint meetings are known as en banc meetings.
Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell opened the meeting by joking that “en banc” was French for “Can’t we all just get along?”
The city and the county have sparred over where to locate a new law enforcement training center and over firefighter training. But there was broad agreement on Tuesday that they needed to address both issues.
Supposed to be a ‘short-term plan’
Since 1985, law enforcement officers have trained at a former elementary school in north Wichita. The building, constructed in 1958, has numerous structural problems, said Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay.
“The mold, piping and asbestos is an issue,” Ramsay said. “We have locker rooms in hallways that were designed for moving people versus storage. The windows, pretty much throughout the building, have rusted shut.”
When we bring in new recruits and they come into this facility where they can’t drink the water and the toilets are for kids, it’s not a very welcoming atmosphere and it doesn’t exude professionalism.
Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay
“This was supposed to be a short-term plan,” Ramsay said about the location at 2235 W. 37th St. North.
Ramsay said a new location was needed to boost recruiting.
“People judge you on your facilities as well,” he said. “When we bring in new recruits and they come into this facility where they can’t drink the water and the toilets are for kids, it’s not a very welcoming atmosphere and it doesn’t exude professionalism.”
Ramsay and Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter spoke in favor of the proposal from MWCB, LLC to put the new training center at the Innovation Campus. MWCB is led by David Murfin, Nestor Weigand Jr., Ivan Crossland Jr. and Steven Barrett.
“We can hold our graduations at WSU. … We have access to bigger classrooms and auditoriums to conduct those types of trainings in a more regional sense,” Easter said.
“We’re doing two studies with WSU right now with the sheriff’s office. That collaboration is big for law enforcement,” Easter added. “That means more trained qualified personnel applying with us.”
Ramsay said it would provide more opportunities for collaboration between his department and Easter’s office.
“We get more for our money with WSU,” he said.
City, county on same page
Longwell pushed that they go ahead with the WSU site, which was also recommended by county staff.
“We’ve obviously heard from the very best and brightest in law enforcement and understand what their suggestion is moving forward,” Longwell said. “And we know what the (county) bid board has shared as their choice.”
Council member Pete Meitzner noted the cost of past options, such as a $30 million proposal to put law enforcement training at the Heartland Preparedness Center.
“We’ve saved the taxpayers $20 million from just four years ago when this was done,” Meitzner said.
Other council members touted the intangible benefits of partnering with WSU.
“I’m hoping that it will aid us in looking at the diversity of our sheriff’s office and city police department,” said council member Lavonta Williams.
The Innovation Campus proposal was more expensive than other options. The least expensive proposal, from NAI Martens, cost around $6.2 million.
Some commissioners were bothered by that and by the process that graded the options. But they ultimately said the WSU proposal worked for law enforcement.
“Despite some of my concerns … I can go along with this,” Commissioner Richard Ranzau said.
The land will be leased to the Innovation Alliance, which will then lease it to the contractor, MWCB, LLC. Once construction ends, the city and county will own the building and will assume MWCB’s sublease.
WSU will provide between 200 and 250 parking spaces dedicated to the training center. The university and the Innovation Alliance will help with about $1 million in operating costs apiece.
Fire training problem ‘needed to be solved’
As recently as late last week, the city and the county were fighting over how often firefighters at Sedgwick County Fire District 1 could train at the city’s Regional Training Center in south Wichita.
A news release written by County Manager Michael Scholes called it a “broken arrangement” and contended there was a “moral imperative” that Fire District firefighters get more access to the facility. Commissioners Norton and Dave Unruh called that language inflammatory and said it would not help negotiations at the Tuesday meeting.
But city and county leaders approved the agreement without much fanfare. It basically lets the Fire District submit its annual training schedule to the city and allows the Fire District complete access to the facility and its equipment.
Fire District 1 Chief Tavis Leake said the agreement will help prevent scheduling conflicts and expand opportunities to train with the city. County firefighters already train at the Regional Training Center.
“Instead of having something where we don’t really know if we can do it or not, now we have a formalized plan,” Leake said. “It allows each party to know when the other one is training.”
This is a problem that needed to be solved with the fire training for the last six years.
Sedgwick County Chairman Jim Howell
County Commission Chairman Jim Howell pushed for a discussion about inequities in firefighter training. He said it was intentional that the city softened on county demands on firefighter training while the county commissioners were more open to the city’s preference for a law enforcement training center.
“I think it was just time for us … to get the politics out of the way,” Howell said. “I’m glad to get this item off of our plate of things to figure out.”