READING - With Reading’s health department move to the police station now a certainty, town leaders will reportedly consider whether to change the name of the Union Street public safety building to reflect that reorganization.

As reported in yesterday’s edition of the Reading Chronicle, Town Meeting representatives on Monday night sanctioned the Public Health Services department’s transition by okaying a $1.5 million renovation at the police station.

However, with several Select Board members heading into Town Meeting with questions about the wisdom proposed move, some in the community believe the relocation could hurt the health department’s relationship with the general public.

For example, during a Board of Health meeting earlier this month, local resident Nancy Docktor argued apprehensive residents - and especially those seeking out help with substance abuse or mental health issues - would be far less likely to walk into a police station building.

In order to overcome that challenge, Docktor, a former Associate member of the Board of Health, insisted that the building’s name should be changed to reflect the dual focus on “public health” priorities. Because anxious visitors might be deterred from entering the police station if they were forced to interact with police dispatchers, she also urged town leaders to seriously consider the addition of a separate entryway into the health services department.

“It’s not user friendly for an individual to come in and access the health department through a police station. So I think we need to talk about that,” said the Pearl Street resident.

“I also think you’ll need to change the name of the building. You can’t have all these entities in there and then say it’s the police department,” she continued. “You need some type of separate entrance or reconfiguration of the lobby. Otherwise, [the layout] will become a way to drive people away from the health department.”

Under the police station renovation plans presented to Town Meeting, approximately $700,000 of the $1.5 million budget will be utilized to establish new offices for the health department, which will share the police station’s retrofitted community room space with Reading’s Coalition for Prevention and Support and a new mental health director. The remainder of the funding would pay for renovating a training/meeting room into a emergency operations center, where the town’s various public safety department personnel could come together.

According to proponents of that change, which is described as part of a larger reorganization that shifts the health services department away from Town Hall’s public services division, the COVID-19 crisis has driven a need for much closer coordination with local police, fire and emergency management managers.

Board of Health officials also say the department’s prominent role in managing the town’s response to the pandemic also led to reforms within Town Hall’s chain-in-command, as Public Health Director Peter Mirandi - like Police Chief David Clark and Fire Chief and Emergency Management Director Gregory Burns - now reports directly to Town Manager Robert LeLachuer instead of through Public Services Division manager and Assistant Town Manager Jean Delios.

“We’re moving out of public services and into a bucket [of departments] that’s called public safety. I’m in favor of that move. I think it’s innovative and that public health has to be a partner with public safety and particularly with the fire department,” Board of Health member Kerry Dunnell stated during a recent virtual meeting.

Though agreeing with the philosophy behind the move to the police station, Board of Health members like Dunnell and board Chair Richard Lopez agreed the building access and naming issues merited further scrutiny. Mirandi also believed a name change would go a long way towards rebranding the Union Street building as a public safety complex.

“It may seem ridiculous to change the name of the police station, but she has a point,” said the public health director. “Names do cary a great deal of influence, so I think you’re onto something. At the very least, we should encourage [the community to have a broader conversation about that possibility].”

Also present during the recent Board of Health discussion about the police station move were Select Board members Ann Landry, Carlo Bacci, and Christopher Haley.

According to Landry, who was one of three Select Board members to second-guess the capital investment in the days prior to Monday’s Town Meeting assembly, she believed the relocation warranted more community input.

In light of those concerns, she advocated for soliciting some feedback from citizens.

“There was a concern about whether there had been sufficient community vetting. There was a feeling that there should be additional community input” said Landry.

Haley, who joined the meeting towards the tail-end of the conversation, did question whether a time-consuming round of community forums was really necessary. According to the Select Board member, if there is indeed a broad consensus for a name change, local officials should just revise the building’s existing signage.

“Just add the extra line under [the police department lettering that says ‘and public health services’]. It seems like a pretty easy fix,” he said.

(1) comment


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