PORT ST. LUCIE — The city has accumulated so much evidence from its 74 marijuana grow house seizures in the past year, it doesn't have enough room to store it.
The police department is using several empty city-owned houses, as well as the defunct Ravenswood Community Center, to store materials ranging from grow house lights, air-conditioning units, hydroponics gear and the green leafy stuff itself. But police say they need more space as the city grows. They want to shift money from planning the eastern substation at the future City Center to build a new evidence warehouse.
"I don't think people realize the amount of evidence that comes into a city that's growing as fast as we have," said Police Chief John Skinner.
If the City Council authorizes it, about $400,000 set aside to plan the substation would go into building a secure warehouse near police headquarters at the City Hall complex, delaying the substation until more money is found.
Skinner said the state attorney's office won't allow any of the evidence, which includes about two tons of marijuana, to be destroyed before the various cases against the growers have concluded.
City Council members had varied reactions to switching the money around to the warehouse, which would likely be an addition to a house the city acquired next to the complex and built for less than $1 million by city staff acting as the general contractor.
"When I look at storage versus a police station, I'll support the police station," said Vice Mayor Jack Kelly. "On the surface, I support leaving the money where it is."
Councilwoman Michelle Berger agreed, saying, "I'm not crazy about buildings for evidence."
Councilwoman Linda Bartz said that the city should partner with other local law enforcement agencies on a joint evidence warehouse or make the warehouse temporary.
"There are still ways we have a police presence on the east side of the city," she said.
Even if the eastern substation is built, the police might not have enough officers to staff it, given future budget uncertainties related to state tax reform, Skinner said. Already he has 17 officer vacancies with money only available for five.
"If you don't have officers available, what's the sense in building it," he said, adding, "I think as time goes on, the cities and state will get through it."
In addition, the Ravenswood Community Center, which was damaged by Hurricane Wilma, might be rebuilt for community programs, forcing the police to rent or lease storage space elsewhere.
"When I look at storage versus a police station, I'll support the police station. On the surface, I support leaving the money where it is."