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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News
Salt Lake police detective Jay Rhodes holds plastic that keeps boxes of evidence from getting wet inside the aging public safety building in Salt Lake City.

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The walls have cracks and water damage. The evidence room gets flooded. The elevators work — sometimes. The drinking fountains spit out brown water.

The Salt Lake City public safety building is in decay.

"Our motto has kind of been 'Make do and kind of do the best you can with what you've got to work with,"' said Salt Lake City police detective Jay Rhodes. "That we do. We become very creative."

Salt Lake City Fire Marshal Kevin Nalder said the building at 315 E. 200 South doesn't even meet the current fire code. That's not illegal, but it's not particularly safe.

"There's some issues that need to be corrected," he said Monday. However, "they don't have to be corrected because the building was built under a prior code."

Police and fire officials are pushing for an estimated $180 million in public safety upgrades that would include a new headquarters, an emergency operations center, a couple of new fire departments, a fire-training facility and an east-side precinct.

"What we're looking at is doing a public safety bond that will get all these things taken care of," Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank said as he led a Deseret Morning News reporter on a tour Monday.

The parking garage has been condemned, but the chief still parks there. A piece of tarp clipped to the ceiling hangs low over his car, collecting water and chunks of concrete that fall from above.

"It's probably the worst spot in the garage," Burbank chuckles. "The water builds up on it so you have to take a pole and push the water off."

At his feet is a large puddle of water from the latest spring storm.

Upstairs, an evidence storage room has holes in the roof, a moldy smell and the beams are split. The room has been re-roofed four times, but it still won't stop the leaks. Cars no longer park there because the floor is unstable.

Working conditions

Inside the basement evidence rooms, holes have been cut out of the ceiling because the plumbing system is falling apart. The pipes clog and water and sewage can flood. Inside one room, a piece of plastic hangs over boxes of evidence. The plastic sheeting cascades into a garbage can that collects the water.

"We have buckets all over the place, so when it starts, we grab them," said Ruth Ogletree, the supervisor of the evidence unit. "We have great big rolls of plastic, so when we notice it's going, we hurry and grab boxes and move them."

The police department has not lost any evidence to flooding, but Ogletree said they have had to repackage some of it when the boxes get wet. "Luckily, it hasn't been any major cases yet," she said.

Floor to ceiling, wall to wall, evidence is stuffed wherever there is an inch of room. It isn't just that the building is falling apart — the department has run out of space.

The robbery-assault unit is in a room designed for four people. Currently, nine detectives try to squeeze inside. A police interview room doubles as a storage closet.

Walls have been put up or moved to accommodate the needs of the department. Until a couple of weeks ago, Ann Thomson had a fluorescent light above her that was half in her boss's office.

"It's a good old building, but here I have no air conditioning and I have no heat because of all these walls," she said.

Thomson, the drugs and vice division secretary, brought in a space heater and a fan, and those will sometimes trip a circuit breaker. Thomson led a reporter into the ladies room to show off broken toilets.

The drinking fountains don't work right now. A sign has been taped to them saying they are out of order until further notice.

A new building?

The elevators shake and sometimes stop working altogether. The chief recalls being stuck between floors once.

"The one time I got caught in the elevator, of course I didn't have my cell phone with me. I'm calling into dispatch, 'Hey, the chief's in the elevator!"' he laughed.

It was about 10 minutes later when the elevator started working again and he was able to get out.

The building has about 54 broken windows. Caulk that secures the single pane windows has hardened and is cracking. Internal Affairs detective Phil Eslinger put a piece of scotch tape over a hole in his office in an attempt to keep out cold air.

The Salt Lake City Police Department practically leaks energy. In 2006, Rhodes said, the building's utilities cost about $469,000. The cost should be about $115,000. Any new building would have to meet a city mandate for energy efficient buildings under the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEEDs) program.

Burbank said working in an aging building has impacted morale.

"Our employees' working conditions are just horrible," he said. "It's not a good environment and not conducive to work."

It's not that the building has been neglected. Rhodes said it's just that maintenance crews are not able to keep up with the demands that a 24-hour police department puts on an office building that was originally constructed in the mid-1950s.

"Your resources only stretch so far," he said.

Updating the building would cost about $6.3 million. That would pay for a new electrical system, heating, cooling and elevators.

"It wouldn't do anything to change the building," Rhodes said. "It would just bring it up to functional standards."

As part of the new plan, Burbank wants to create an emergency operations center nearby to house 911 dispatchers. They currently are in the same building, which creates a risk.

The chief said he is lobbying the City Council again to get support for a bond, which would be the largest in the city's history. Right now, police said it's difficult to determine how much it would cost — but $180 million is a ballpark figure.