News - May 27, 2009
Should library funds help build Atherton town hall?
by Andrea Gemmet
Atherton needs money for a new city hall. Atherton's library has a healthy bankroll of reserve funds that could be used to expand the library. Is there a mutual benefit here?
Depending upon whom you ask, the answer is a hopeful "maybe" or an adamant "no!"
Atherton Councilman Charles Marsala has been spearheading efforts to replace the town's aging administrative offices and police station with a larger facility by using a mix of donated money and town funds. He's on the Atherton Blue Ribbon Task Force, a group charged with community outreach and planning for a new town hall that has been kicking around the idea of using so-called donor city funds from the library.
The Atherton branch library is one of three in San Mateo County that receives more income from property tax revenue than it costs to operate. The excess money goes into a dedicated fund for library improvements.
That fund is expected to grow to more than $4 million by December 2010, according to Mr. Marsala.
The thinking is that if Atherton builds a new town hall, that facility could house not only offices for town staff and the police department, it could include new council chambers. The library could then expand into the vacant council chambers in exchange for cash that could go toward building the new town hall.
The idea would have to have the blessing of the county-wide joint powers authority that governs the library before it could go ahead, as well as legal opinion saying it's permissible.
"We need clarification so we could move forward," said Mr. Marsala at the May 19 City Council meeting. "I'm not saying that we would do this."
On the agenda was a request for City Council permission to approach the library JPA with the idea, but the council discussion devolved into conflict over who knew what, and when.
"When I saw this on the agenda, I was very upset by it, as upset as I've ever been," said Councilwoman Kathy McKeithen, who has been the council's liaison to the JPA. She said Mr. Marsala put the item on the agenda without notice to the council, and misrepresented the town's position to the JPA.
Ms. McKeithen read a written statement lambasting Mr. Marsala for what she called "an egregious violation of transparency and public trust," and accusing him of putting forward "a thinly disguised attempt to fund the town center by robbing the library."
Mr. Marsala said he was perplexed by accusations of lack of transparency. The topic made headlines in a local newspaper several months ago, it's been discussed for about a year at task force meetings, and it was on the agenda of the library JPA meeting in September, he said.
"I feel it's been very transparent," Mr. Marsala said.
He is just trying to find out if the JPA is on board with the idea before pursing it further, Mr. Marsala said.
"If we don't get clarification on this, it affects our recommendation," said John Davey, member of the task force. "Is it money we can possibly consider to be used for building the town center, or not? If we don't ask for it, we're not going to get it."
Martin Gomez, the director of library services, said that if a request for the library to buy the old council chambers came before the JPA board, "I'd recommend that this is not a valid use of library funds." Building a new library or seismically retrofitting the existing library would be a valid use of the funds, he said.
The council voted 3-2, with Ms. McKeithen and Jim Dobbie opposed, to have Atherton's city attorney and city manager work with the JPA to explore possible use of donor city funds.
Posted by Charles Marsala,
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on May 26, 2009 at 2:16 pm
Here is the current picture and detailed history regarding Atherton's Facilities for Public Safety, Library, Arts, Building Department, Public Works, Post Office, and Administration.
I will start with the current situation and conclude with the history.
In 1978, Rita Corbet Evans left her home to the Town to be used for Art. Since it was in a residential area, the town sold the home and hoped to put a facility in the park. When I joined the Arts Committee in 1999, I was asked to work on this project with the City Council and Park and Recreation Commission.
In 2002 as a member of the Park and Recreation Commission, we surveyed residents of the town on activity desires and interests. We found that 75% of the residents indicated they would participate in lectures, 65% in political Talks, 40% in Photography, and 61% in Art Exhibits.
In 1978 Prop 13 Passed and set aside fixed allocations for Property Taxes. The Atherton Library receives 3.44% of our Property Taxes. It has been running a surplus of $500,000 a year for the last three years and will grow to more than $600,000 in FY2009-2010. The total surplus by the end of 2010 will be over $4,000,000; by 2012 it will be over $5,000,000.
In 1983 plans were developed to expand the library South into the Reading Park. The children's area is close to the adult area and computer area, there are noise issues.
In 1999 Atherton joined the San Mateo Library JPA as one of ten cities and the unincorporated lands of San Mateo County. From 2003 through 2008, I served as the town's representative to the JPA. Reserves have grown from $300,000 in 2003 to $3,200,000 today.
Two other towns in the JPA are "Donor Cities", Portola Valley and Woodside. "Donor Cities" are towns whose Property Tax revenue exceeds the cost to operate their Library. Other towns receive property taxes from unincorporated San Mateo county to offset costs.
The JPA agreement allows for Library Donor City Funds to be used for "Facility Expansion". If Atherton did not own the land and the council chambers building and wished to purchase them to expand the library, that would clearly qualify as expansion. So the question is, if another Town of Atherton department owned the land could the asset be transferred to the library for cash in a validated manner? Or would Atherton have to sell it to a third party and then buy it for "Library Expansion." ?
The San Mateo JPA has developed many outstanding activities including lectures, concerts, and movies. The current council chambers is within thirty feet of the library and has tall ceilings. Should we as a town consider turning this facility into an auditorium for use for library activities? Should we consider using this for an occasional local artist exhibit? Is it our decision or up to the JPA?
In 2003, when I became Atherton's JPA representative, City Manager Jim Robinson advised me of the $300,000 surplus. In 2006 as Mayor and along with Vice-Mayor Alan Carlson we began asking the JPA for clarification of the JPA agreement regarding usage of donor city funds, by this point in time the surplus had grown to $1.6Million.
In 2006, Hurricane Katrina brought attention to the need for cities to have Emergency Operation Centers (EOCs), The Atherton council chambers built in 1928 had been designated for this purpose. Seismic and other concerns lead the town to move the EOC to the Public Works office. The State of California has requirements for EOCs that Atherton does not meet. As a council member, I believe we have a duty to address the Emergency Response needs of our residents.
I see the expanding of the library into council chambers as a win-win solution. Atherton would transfer the amount from a validated appraisal of the land and building from the Library's reserve and the Library would have a place to expand. By the time any of this would happen, say 2012, we will have more than $5,000,000 in the Library reserves. If $1,500,000 were transferred to cover the cost of the land and building, then $3,500,000 remains to upgrade the facilities.
Not included in the $3.5 Million would be any donations or the annual surplus Donor City funds coming in after 2012. I would also suggest we allocate some of the Rita Corbet Evans trust to the facility and give the Art Committee access to the space.
I have made two motions at JPA meetings, discussed this in a Town Forum over a year ago, and had it on several council agendas.
The motion at the September 2008 JPA meeting was, "Atherton should be allowed to use donor city funds for purposes of acquiring existing lands and buildings to expand the library." The motion was seconded by a council member of East Palo Alto and passed 10-0.
The motion at the February 2009 JPA meeting was, "To direct (JPA) staff to get legal opinion on the JPA Agreement and for that opinion to include provisions for donor cities to be able to transfer donor city reserves for assets in a validated manner." The motion was seconded by a council member from Foster City and passed 11-0.
When the Town was funded in 1923, the first council meetings were at the mayor's house and later the Circus Club. Around 1927, a bond was approved to build the first town center. It failed. A year later it passed.
In the 1960s a second bond was passed to build the current Public Safety Building and Town Offices. Those buildings do not meet current codes and OSHA has been out to inspect.
The council started looking for solutions in 1993. By 1998 the Building Department, Public Works Department, and part of the Police Department were in "Temporary Modulars".
In February 2009 as part of the Stimulus Plan, Build America Bonds (BABs) were created. They will expire in 2010 or when the funds are gone.
In May 2000, council increased building fees to set aside $200,000 per year for a permanent building for the Building Department.
These factors should be reason for us to consider working on solutions and moving ahead to rid the CARA neighborhood of the "Modulars", build an adequate Emergency Operations Center, provide our staff with safe and efficient workspace, and develop a facility where residents can enjoy the activities put on by the Library. A place where we can interact at lectures, political talks, concerts, art exhibits.
Putting the concept on the council agenda for comments and suggestions hopefully is seen as outreach and a chance to refine the concept.