Millville officials to investigate new police-friendly building

The Town of Millville needs to build a new garage, so the town council is considering making the structure something the Delaware State Police would like to use, too. The town council at its March 25 meeting unanimously approved a feasibility study for a new building, which may include space for DSP.

The discussion came almost exactly three years after the 2011 announcement that the Town of Millville planned to allow DSP officers to use Millville Town Hall’s second floor as a local headquarters, coming and going as they pleased.

However, the Town’s existing one-car garage will practically be a safety hazard when the Delaware Department of Transportation widens Route 26 and part of Club House Road, necessitating a new garage.

“The Town needs to build a garage,” said Debbie Botchie, town manager. “We might as well make it a larger four-bay garage for future growth.”

Since Millville was considering a new building anyway, Botchie continued, why not build police office space upstairs? That way, the Town itself has room to use the upstairs area in town hall, instead of dedicating it to DSP and emergency use.

Instead, Botchie proposed, DSP would have its own space in a new Millville-owned building.

“We know that the Town is going to have to build a new garage — that’s the first thing,” she said, speaking to an effort to continue local police coverage in the town, despite its lack of a municipal police department.

A state trooper can work almost entirely out of a patrol car, so “What would it take to get more police presence in Millville?” Botchie asked.

From conversations with Maj. Robert Hawkins of the DSP and Sean Moriarty of DSP Troop 4 in Georgetown, Botchie said the DSP needs its own space for troop meetings and training. Currently, officers must borrow space in nearby police departments or fire halls. An added bonus would be a garage bay in which to wash patrol cars.

With the larger garage, Millville would have three bays for the Town’s Neighborhood Watch car, Town work truck and a future additional vehicle, while the DSP would have at least one bay.

The new second floor of the garage would include features of the existing second floor at town hall: kitchenette, bunks, showers, bathrooms and so forth. The facility would add white boards for training, separate entrances and a soundproof interrogation room with video monitoring. Maryland and Virginia law enforcement could even participate in training there.

A breezeway would connect the building to town hall.

Stronger police coverage for Millville, neighbors

All of the local municipalities along Route 1 have their own police departments, as does Ocean View. But inland, there is no police base along most of Route 54, Roxana, Clarksville and other incorporated zones until reaching towns along Route 113. That leaves a large area of unincorporated coastal Sussex County for state troopers to patrol, with residents having expressed concerns over how often the areas are patrolled and how quickly troopers can respond to a report of a crime or accident.

“This not just for Millville, but surrounding communities, as well,” Botchie emphasized.

“A while back, [DSP] had an opportunity to have a troop on Route 54, and they could not go forward because of staffing,” Mayor Gerald “Gerry” Hocker Jr. said.

Under the proposal for the DSP use of the new garage, Millville would serve as a landing spot for troopers, but no minimum number of officers would be required to stay there. The existing office is not manned 24 hours a day.

“It’s less costly. We don’t pay the troopers when they utilize the upstairs,” Botchie told the Coastal Point. Millville does pay the DSP for extra coverage for holiday weekends, farmers’ markets and festivals, “just to make sure everything goes well.”

Botchie said she feels Millville has adequate police coverage, and further ensuring a DSP presence in the town will help keep taxes low.

“The council and administration stay concerned about public safety,” she said. “Several higher-ups — including an association who does studies for towns — they keep telling me Millville does not need a fulltime police department at this time. They feel our relationship with the Delaware State Police is the avenue to go right now.”

An additional concern with the Town founding their own police force is a bill that has passed in the Delaware House of Representatives and waits in Senate. House Bill 81 would require collective bargaining for police and firefighters whose employers have at least three fulltime employees — a significant change from the existing 25-employee minimum.

“That can crush municipal budgets, which are already under a lot of strain,” Botchie said. “Police departments cost a lot of money. Are they needed? Yes.”

But though it hasn’t been actively discussed in a while, a Millville police department isn’t entirely off the table. Millville still has a police startup fund, having stashed a percentage of the realty transfer tax each fiscal quarter.

“It’s going to come at some time as Millville grows, because, according to [town engineer] Kyle Gulbronson [of URS], we are the fastest-growing municipality in Sussex County,” she added.

Council support

Councilman Steve Maneri noted that, back at his hometown in New York, a nearby town also had a barracks to house state police, since municipal departments are so expensive.

Plus, if things change, Millville still has an entire building to use for a future police department or office space, Councilman Harry Kent said.

Calling it a “phenomenal” idea, Councilwoman Joan Bennett said she’d prefer that DSP send Millville a formal needs assessment statement, beyond Botchie’s email exchanges with DSP.

“Can we consider … a general statement where we, the Town, … set out general parameters for financial obligations for building and future maintenance of the facility,” Bennett asked, “so there are no false impressions?”

“There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered,” Councilman Bob Gordon said, noting questions about cost, size, technology, drainage, the gas tank and more. “We need it for ourselves as much as the state police would like it here. If it’ll help them, that’s fine. At the same time, we’ve got do what’s best … with everyone here.”

“There’s a lot of work to do … before we even think about going to the drawing board with an architect,” Botchie said later.

“We want presence. They might be washing their car, but they’ll be here,” said Hocker. “It’s a great idea. I think it’s worth exploring.”

“That’s what I’m asking for,” Botchie said, “the opportunity to explore what we can put on this property.”

The council will reserve $10,000 “for investigatory needs” in the upcoming draft budget, which will be voted upon in April. Such a high number gives wiggle room to study exactly what’s needed, “so there are no surprises,” Bennett said. They can classify it under general funds and switch to a building fund if the study leads to actual construction.

It falls under a total of $15,000 for other soil studies and engineering for the existing town hall, which may already face structural or subsoil issues.