$33M lab among potential Chandler bond projects - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

$33M lab among potential Chandler bond projects

January 20th, 2021 SanTan Sun News
$33M lab among potential Chandler bond projects

By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer

Chandler Police are hoping that the city will include a new $33 million forensic crime laboratory in a bond issue that officials are now working on.
One of the largest projects among the many capital projects currently being vetted by a City Council committee is a standalone crime lab.
Police Chief Sean Duggan said his agency has outgrown the crime lab located within the city’s main station and that it’s time for Chandler to build a separate facility that could house new amenities like ballistics testing or toxicological work.
That’s why a new lab has become the police department’s first priority, Duggan recently told a bond exploratory committee. The department said it could significantly enhance what Chandler’s forensic investigators could do without having to go outside the city.
Like many other Valley cities, Chandler outsources much of its forensic testing to the Arizona Department of Public Safety for cases requiring DNA analysis.
“We are 100 percent relying on their timeline and where we are in the cue because they also provide that service to a number of agencies around the state,” Duggan said.
The police department collects about 600 DNA samples annually, the chief said, yet Chandler only sends out about 4 percent of these samples to get tested by DPS.
The state agency won’t test items related to property crimes like thefts and burglaries, Duggan explained, and will prioritize samples tied to cases involving violent crimes.
Chandler’s current crime lab is capable of conducting fingerprint analysis, drug identification and tests measuring the blood alcohol content of drunk drivers.
The agency typically processes 1,000 cases involving intoxicated drivers each year, Duggan said, so a bigger crime lab could greatly help manage the growing workload for the city’s forensic scientists.
Moreover, he said, DUI cases could potentially “skyrocket” soon in response to the recent statewide legalization of marijuana, generating an even greater need for Chandler to have an in-house toxicology testing center.
“It’s important that we have that capability instead of relying on DPS to do our analysis for drugs,” Duggan said.
A standalone crime lab would not only benefit Chandler, Duggan added, since it could process evidence from smaller agencies in Pinal County that also depend on DPS for their forensic needs.
“We could also use that as a regional asset and invite other cities to use that,” the chief said.
Chandler Police already identified some land near its evidence storage facility on Pecos Road to build the new lab.
Whether or not the project comes to fruition could depend on how the Bond Exploratory Committee makes its recommendations to the City Council later this year.
More than 50 percent of the city’s capital projects are paid with bond funds that have allowed Chandler to invest in expensive ventures without draining its general fund.
Chandler’s last bond election in 2007 saw when voters authorized a $451-million package for projects that improved parks, libraries, public safety facilities and wastewater systems.
The city formed the exploratory committee last year to study Chandler’s infrastructure needs and determine whether the city should call for another bond election to fund projects that have been accumulating over the last decade.
One of the committee’s main priorities has been looking for a bond package that could be passed by voters and not raise Chandler’s property taxes.
Dawn Lang, the city’s management services director, said the city could attempt to seek up to $426 million in new bond funding and still not raise taxes on local residents.
The bond committee has identified up to 70 projects that could be funded through new bond money and has begun assessing which would likely gain the favor of Chandler’s voters. The committee’s additionally been evaluating when projects should be executed over a 10-year period.
Some projects, like the forensic crime lab, have been categorized as needing to be completed sooner than others because their long-term operational costs might be lower and less burdensome on the city’s budget.
“We have to make sure we can afford the operations and maintenance,” Lang said. “We can’t build something and not be able to actually hire people to bring that building on line.”
The lab is estimated to cost the city $2 million annually to operate, which is slightly cheaper than another public safety project under review with the bond committee – a $12 million detention facility that would generate about $3 million in operational costs and require the creation of 26 new positions.
For years, Chandler’s officers have had to transport suspects to the County Jail in Phoenix and spend much of their shift waiting to complete the booking process. Chandler attempted to make the process more efficient a few years ago by forming a partnership with Gilbert to utilize a section of that town’s detention center.
Duggan said the Gilbert partnership was only intended to last a few years and will eventually become unviable once Gilbert starts needing to use more of the facility for its own inmates.
When that day comes, Duggan said Chandler won’t have a place to locally book its defendants.
“We don’t have a Plan B,” the chief said. “Because the town of Gilbert, things are certainly growing.”
The detention facility project is presently positioned on the bond committee’s list of projects that could be delayed by a few years.
The Chandler Fire Department has a number of projects its hoping will be prioritized by the committee before final recommendations are made before the council.
The most important one being a $6-million expansion of a fire station located near Alma School and Warner roads.
Fire Chief Tom Dwiggins said this station is one of Chandler’s busiest and urgently needs more space to house extra firefighters. The station gets about 4,700 calls each year, he said, and can currently only respond to about 65 percent of them.
“1,600 times, they’re not available,” Dwiggins said. “They’re probably on another call or they’re coming back from another call and they’re too far out.”
When the northern station is unavailable, then one of the city’s other stations or a nearby agency in Mesa or Gilbert might have to respond.
Dwiggins said this present arrangement is creating some inequity among the fire stations in the surrounding area and could be fixed by revamping the Alma School facility.
A redesign of the station has already begun, but completing the project will be more complicated than getting voters to pass a bond.
Because the station is so busy, Chandler can’t afford to temporarily shut it down while the renovations commence. Dwiggins said the city will have to gradually build around the station in phases so that it never closes.
“It’s a big project,” he noted. “It’s very complex.”
Other bond projects under review with the committee include a $10-million renovation of A.J. Chandler Park, $32 million for improvements to Mesquite Grove Park and $4 million for various improvements to Alma School Road.