By Adam Aasen
The Hamilton County Council on Aug. 5 shot down plans to build a $3 million public safety training center, instead approving funds by a 4-0 vote to build only one part of the project.
The proposed plans call for a multi-story burn tower, 20-line weapons training and qualifications range and small building for classrooms, equipment and bathrooms on a 96-acre property on River Road in Noblesville.
The cost had been estimated at $3 million for phase one and municipalities had been asked to cover $40,000 annually in operating costs for the training center.
Every city voted to approve its share of the funding. Carmel took the longest and held the issue in committee to overcome some councilors’ reluctance but ultimately passed the proposal in March.
A majority of the County Council expressed concerns about escalating costs for later phases of the project, which are estimated at more than $40 million. Councilor Fred Glynn said the cities only agreed to help with operating expenses, but not cover the capital costs of construction. He worried that voting for the initial $3 million would put the county on the hook for a much bigger bill later.
As a result, a counterproposal was suggested. Councilmen Paul Ayers, Brad Beaver, Fred Glynn and Rick McKinney voted to fund $568,000 to build the fire tower, which was part of the project. This move angered some other councilors, causing them to walk out of the room.
“Walking out of room is nothing but political theatrics,” Glynn said.
Sean Sutton of the Carmel Firefighters Union said he was surprised by the vote and hopes that a compromise can be made in the future. He said the county sincerely needs a training center as a matter of public safety and that it can be built with no tax increase, pointing to the county’s sizable reserve fund.
Sutton said he doesn’t know why some of councilors voted against the proposal, but he speculated that they didn’t do the proper research to see how it was funded. He also noted that it might be political since some who opposed funding the full $3 million were not endorsed by the Firefighters Union during their elections.
Glynn said he felt there was a lack of information provided about the later phases of the training center. Furthermore, he said he had to do his own research to find out that other similar training centers had trouble collecting revenue from outside municipalities who used their facilities. He also noted that he’s been told the state might be building a similar center in the future and that Carmel has expressed interest in building its own training center.
County Councilor Brad Beaver said there is no statutory obligation to fund fire stations and it appears that the county would be in charge of running this facility.
“I’m not interested in starting new departments or county agencies,” Beaver said. “Because it never stops at one, and that’s how you ended up with too much government.”
Sutton disagrees with that sentiment.
“If they don’t want to be in the business of funding fire training, then why fund the fire tower?” he said.
Beaver noted that a full-time employee would be needed to run the facility, but that person’s salary plus benefits would eat up most of the annual operating funds pledged by Carmel, Fishers and Noblesville. He said there would be no wiggle room for any added expenses such as vehicles, utilities, etc.
Carmel City Councilor Sue Finkam expressed disappointment with the vote.
“Public safety isn’t one of the areas where you skimp,” she said.
City Councilor Carol Schleif said she thought the money was a wise investment.
“The training center is really needed,” she said. “Public safety is number one for me.”
Glynn said he completely understands why each city council has supported the effort because most of the cost will be paid for by the county, not each city.
“If someone else is paying for it, why wouldn’t they support it?” he said.
Glynn said there is hope for a compromise but that the other side wasn’t willing to negotiate. He said if they would have worked with the fire officials, he could have envisioned something like $2 million being appropriated, but that he would strongly oppose any ongoing blank check for construction.
Ayers, president of the County Council, expressed concerns about stray bullets coming from the shooting range and posing a danger to others. Sutton said he didn’t think that was a concern because the building would be state-of-the-art and all safety procedures would be followed.