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Elkhorn rethinks plan for downtown police station

West wing of government center not needed after all

Mike Heine/The Week

(Published March 21, 2007, 1:29 p.m

It might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but a big part of an intergovernmental agreement between the city and Walworth County may have been written for naught.

The Elkhorn City Council decided recently it would not look to move the local police department into the vacant west wing of the downtown Walworth County Government Center.

The option was a part of an annexation deal reached between the two government entities in late 2002.

Walworth County was then looking to build its judicial center on county-owned land on the outskirts of the city limits. It needed the plot of land annexed from the town of Geneva into the city so court could still be held in the county seat.

The city council at the time demanded something in return to maintain the vitality of downtown Elkhorn.

In exchange for annexing the parcel into the city, Walworth County agreed to move other offices into the government center and give Elkhorn the first floor of the west wing for use as a police station for $1 per year for 20 years.

Today, faced with an architect's opinion that the west wing is too small for the city's future needs, the council has abandoned its option to occupy the 9,500-square-foot space. It is instead looking for other sites for a new, stand-alone police station.

"The city always thought that that move was more of a temporary move for us," Police Chief Joel Christensen said. "It was not more long range; more of a 10-year fix, basically."

The current 2,800-square-foot police station, which shares space with the city's public works department on First Avenue, is deficient in many ways, Christensen said. For instance, one room is used for an officer break room, a booking room and a mailroom, Christensen said.

The architectural study recommends more than 9,850 square feet for a new building.

Estimates for a new police station are $1.5 million to $2 million, Christensen said. Renovating the west wing could cost almost $1 million.

"To do a major over haul of a building, it'd be almost as much to build a new one and we would not own it (the west wing)," Mayor John Giese said.

What about the deal?

Walworth County held up its end of the bargain by bringing other offices to the government center. But details of what happens now still need negotiation between the city and county.

Giese believes Elkhorn gave up its rights to the wing and didn't expect the city to want the space for anything else.

There is a $150,000 remodeling payment the county promised to Elkhorn if the space was renovated. What happens to that money will be a part of the negotiations, Giese and County Administrator David Bretl said.

"What this means is we need to sit down and talk with them to see what this does for our future and their future," Bretl said. "We'll use the agreement as a starting point for those discussions."

Bretl said it would have been nice if Elkhorn decided it wouldn't need the west wing before other areas of the government center were remodeled. The space was not incorporated into the county's remodeling plans and is essentially separated from the government center traffic flow. Walworth County also expended money to have utilities separated in preparation for Elkhorn using part of the county building, Public Works Director Shane Crawford said.

However, Bretl understood that plans change over time.

"It was a contentious period when this was negotiated," Bretl said. "There was a lot of consternation and anxiety when that took place.

"We're beyond that and we need to see what is in the best interest for the same taxpayers that we both represent."

City planning

In January, Elkhorn developed a police department site selection committee to review potential locations for a new station.

The best option so far has been at Tasch Park, located immediately east of the current department. It is city-owned parkland that could hold a new facility, Giese said. The park is an open field with some playground equipment and a basketball court.

Another site with potential is where Lakeland School currently is, between Court and Jefferson streets on the city's west side. Walworth County might put the parcel on the market once a new Lakeland School is built near the judicial center on County NN.

Crawford said the two sides have not negotiated for the old Lakeland School property.

Giese said Elkhorn has about $1 million set aside for a new police station. That money was earmarked for renovating the government center's west wing.

Strang Inc., a Madison-based architect, is developing site plans for both locations and is expected to release them within the week.


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