FERRIS — For the past year, Ferris Police Officers and Firefighters have been working out of temporary facilities after their stations became hazardous to the health of anyone inside. A toxic environment — made up of black mold and rat feces — caused city officials to take drastic action to protect their first responders.

The city is now in the early stages of planning a new multipurpose facility.

“I started here in late October 2015, and we were at the old Police Department. A couple days into my job I started to have problems with my allergies. I never had really any re-occurring problems with my allergies. Just would (take) a couple of Allegra and that took care of the problem. That is what I was doing. It wouldn’t clear up,” Ferris Police Chief Eddie Salazar said. “I hadn’t been here a month and I already had to take a day off because my allergies were that bad. So I am thinking something is not right here. I didn’t know if there was something heavy in the air or if something was going on. I didn’t understand what was going on. I started noticing that administrative assistant was having a lot of issues, respiratory type problems and having to go to the doctor. Then a lot of my officers were having to take a lot of sick time for respiratory-type problems.”

SICK TIME

Salazar then asked his administrators see how many hours sick leave the staff for sick leave had used over the last six months. The data showed that the total accumulated hours was equal to two months, which led him to quickly determine the common thread — the building where they worked.

Salazar then took his concerns to the city administration.

“So I took that to the city manager and said, 'Here I did a little investigative work. Here I what I found and I think it is that building.' He said well let's do an air study. They contracted with this company and did an air study. The technician that came out there hadn’t been in there for more than 30 minutes to set up his equipment and take readings and his eyes were watering. He was sniffling. He said, ‘I don’t know what you all have, but you have got something in here,’” Salazar said. “So this was on a Friday. [He said he] wouldn't have the reports back to us until Monday or Tuesday. Before he left, he said ‘y’all might want to get some of those industrial air scrubbers in here.’ So we contracted with a company who brought these industrial air scrubbers. “

HEALTH HAZARD

Salazar said that when the reports came back the following week, the departments were advised to cease operations in the building due to multiple health hazards.

Over the next 60 days, the police department began transitioning out of the building.

The Ellis County Sheriff’s Office opened up space at their facility for Ferris’ dispatchers to work. An interlocal agreement and a memorandum of understanding were made with the Red Oak Police Department to allow Ferris to use its jail.

“The rest of us had to work in there. We had to use those big industrial type respirators. We had to shut it down to the public. Nobody was allowed in. If we had to talk to a citizen we had to step outside the building,” Salazar said. “We had to move out of that building. The whole city came together. Every department. Public works came and prepped the site for us. Code enforcement was helping out. We got the building set up. They just bring us the shells. We had to lay them out how we wanted. It didn’t have a dispatch office; it didn’t have an interview room. So it was bare bones minimum. So we had to come in here and do a floor layout.”

HEADACHES

While moving out of the building, it was discovered that rodents had made it into the evidence room.

“Our evidence room had rats in some of the evidence. We started looking through there, and there was some marijuana that the rats had been eating on. So I thought ‘oh my gosh.’ So the first thing that I did was I called up the district attorney’s office. I said, ‘Ok some of our evidence had been contaminated, and at this point, I don’t know what is what. I just want you to know that some of our evidence had been contaminated,” Salazar said. “Patrick Wilson, (county and district attorney) had been great. He said, ‘Identify what cases are still pending and what evidence was tampered with by the rodents and we will take it from there.”

Salazar said it was determined that contaminated evidence was from two cases that had already been cleared and disposed of and not connected with anything that was pending.

He added that evidence was transported from the old building to the new facility with a protocol established by the district attorney’s office. This protocol kept the evidence’s chain of custody intact.

Along with the evidence, all of the department’s 44,000 documents were contaminated, which led to the city contracting with RCI Record Management to digitize the records.

“They scanned it and now we have an electronic copy of all the files. So if someone does an open records request, we can give them a digital copy of what they need. They then shredded and disposed of the records,” Salazar said. “ Of the 44,000 documents, there were certain things that they could not take like criminal histories that had personal identifier information. We had to go through 14 filing cabinets and pull out anything that was sensitive information. Then we had to take that and incinerate it. There were many 14, 15 and 16-hour days here. The team pulled together, and here we are a year later we are planning a new facility.”

MOVING FORWARD

City officials are in the process of accessing the needs of both departments, while also looking at facility needs for the city as a whole. Preliminary plans call for a single building to house city hall and the police department and adjoining building for the fire department. They are working with PGAL to conduct a feasibility study.

According to PGAL’s website, it is an international design firm that specializes in architecture, interiors, engineering and planning and has clients from both the public and private sectors.

“We know that we have some money that we can use to put towards it by refinancing some bonds that are currently out there so it wouldn’t cause any effect on the tax rate. But we don’t think that we are going to get enough out to do the project,” Ferris City Manager Bill Jordan said. “Right now, constructions costs are through the roof. We are hearing in other cities that it is hitting $300-$400 a square foot. We are looking at all the options that we can. "

Jordan said the city is looking to construct new facilities that would accommodate Ferris' projected 20-year growth. He hopes to have some numbers for the city council to look at within the next 60-90 days.

MODULAR CONSTRUCTION?

In addition to traditional construction, the city is looking at modular buildings that are built on a fixed foundation. One of the companies under consideration is Ramtech Building Systems.

According to Ramtech’s website, it has operated for the past 40 years and has 3,500 successfully completed projects and continues to be a national leader and innovator in the development of relocatable commercial modular buildings. Its building products include relocatable modular building, permanent modular construction, and prefabricated construction. Ramtech’s buildings have been built for commercial, healthcare, governmental and educational uses.

Jordan said the building would be built off-site and delivered to the construction site. Each modular section would be attached, tightened and fixed to the foundation. Once completed, the outside of the building would be bricked.

“We are taking the council on a tour of one of the projects this company just completed on April 12. We are going to take a ride up to Arlington and tour that building and look at the quality and make sure that is what we want. It’s a private school, Arlington Classics,” Jordan said. “This company also did an edition out here on the junior high school on FM 660. It is a classroom edition for Ferris ISD. That building is bricked. You walk right in and there is a big hallway and classrooms all the way down the side. You would not know that it was brought in on wheels. It is permanent now.”

Jordan said this type of construction offers cost savings but the quality of the building is going to be the determining factor during this project.

“They are projecting about a third of a savings. When you are talking about a potential $10 million project and knocking $3 million of the price of it, that is a huge savings,” Jordan said. “So that is why we want to look at this, but we don’t want to jump into something that we don’t really want. We want to make sure this is meeting the quality that we are looking for.”

Jordan said constructing a combination facility would make it more convenient for residents, as all city departments would be under one roof.

"Well, city hall is here in the train station. Every office in this building is either filled or is going to be filled because we have a vacancy. The police and fire department the buildings that they were in, the old ones, they had already outgrown. They had desks in the hallways trying to fit everybody. Then we had the mold issue,” Jordan said. “We know that it is going to be in the best interest to get everyone under one roof. We are also paying for multiple facilities and the council chambers are down the street from us here at city hall. To put that under one roof it is going to be a big cost savings and efficiency savings.”

NEW BUILDINGS

Preliminary plans have the square footage needed for the new facilities estimated at 38,000 square feet with costs estimated between $7-$12 million.

“We are trying to find how much square footage we need. Then also look at the possibility even in addition to this to do some amenities for the community as well. Whether it is a rec center and including the seniors in there somehow for a senior center to incorporate into that, but all that is conceptual,” Jordan said. “We are in the planning stages to find all this out. That is where we are now. We are starting to get some numbers on paper.”

Jordan said a site has not been selected or purchased for the new facilities but estimates that around five to six acres would be needed.

OLD BUILDINGS

The Ferris City Council will tour the old buildings on South Church during an executive session at its Monday night meeting to determine a course of action.

Jordan said the former police station was built in 1916 and once was the station for the Interurban Transit system that ran throughout the county. Over the years, the building has been modified, repaired and adapted to accommodate a variety of different uses.

“There are some feelings that we shouldn’t lose it. The problem is that it is 100 years old and in really bad shape. Unfortunately, we may be in the situation that we have already lost the building and we just need to accept that,” Jordan said. “Walls have failed, and they have rebuilt other walls. You drive by it and it has vinyl siding on it because the brick underneath is crumbling. It is in horrible shape. The only thing that is really left in that building that is really original is the old vault that is in it when was in Interurban Train Station. Even that the back wall of the vault has been knocked at some point. So really it is just the vault door. It is pretty ornate with a gold looking lion on it. There is nothing else in that building that is original or it has not been covered up by something else.”

Jordan said to remove the black mold, the rat infestation, the feces, asbestos, make repairs and bring the building back into use has been estimated at $500,000 — but might be higher. He added that, even if the repairs were made to bring the building back to code, it is still too small for the needs of emergency responders.

Jordan added that a large cost of the restoration work would be asbestos removal due to textured paint with asbestos in it on the outside. The removal the paint would force the entire building to be tented. The second large restoration cost is the replacement of a brick load-bearing wall where water is coming into the building.

Jordan said the decision on the former city facility future is up to the city council.

He added the city is moving as quickly as it can to get this need met. However, if the situation does not get resolved the lease on the two temporary buildings for the police and fire department will have to be renewed. The city is on the second year of its two-year lease for the facilities that comes at a yearly cost of $34,754.88.

“It is unfortunate. I am not going to say years of neglect. I am going to say years of band-aids. You can’t always put a band-aid on a large wound, but we did to get us down the road a little bit longer,” Jordan said. “We finally got to address this and pull all the band-aids off and look at what was under there, and it was a gash. I think the surgeon is telling you are going to lose your leg at this point. You’re not going to get stitches. I think that is where we are.”

The Ferris City Council meets at 6 p.m. on April 3 in the council chambers located at 215 W. Sixth St. in Ferris.

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