How much it should cost Menlo Park taxpayers to remodel city hall remains a source of contention, although during the April 7 council meeting the dissatisfaction came from the council, not the public.
The council voted 3-0-1 to cap the budget for the project at $1.3 million as part of approving a financial work plan. The approved plan also includes adding eight full-time staff positions related to project review; converting seven temporary positions to permanent ones; and spending $204,000 to increase salaries for engineers, building inspectors and planners by 5 to 7 percent.
Finally, the vote also gave City Manager Alex McIntyre the go-ahead to hire a consultant for up to $90,000 to analyze the city's compensation and job classification structure.
Altogether, the changes will cost the city $2.1 million, which will be met through a combination of one-time property tax reimbursement from the county as well as the city's general and possibly reserve funds.
Councilman Ray Mueller abstained from the vote, and Vice Mayor Rich Cline was absent due to business travel.
The idea of adding staff and raising salaries for hard-to-hire positions met with approval from all four council members at the meeting.
Councilman Peter Ohtaki said the existing planning and public works departments are swamped, thanks to a surge in project applications. Retention has been a problem "We've seen a rotating door effectively ... we are winding up paying for training for inspectors who wind up taking a job with another city," he said, adding that development fees are expected to cover 50 to 80 percent of the cost for the proposed changes, "so the net cost to taxpayers is minimal."
The city hall remodel inspired some debate. The council in 2014 initially approved spending $300,000 on the project, which would rearrange workspace to accommodate more employees within the facility, and improve customer service by adding features such as kiosks. The 15-year-old carpet would also be replaced for $400,000.
Last July, the council approved one design option on a 4-1 vote, with Councilwoman Kirsten Keith dissenting, but asked for more data to support the cost. At that point the estimated total budget had grown from $700,000 to $1.2 million. According to the staff, a large portion of the expense comes from the plan to carry out the renovation work at night to keep city hall open for business during the day.
However, the requested additional data was not in evidence on Tuesday night. Meanwhile, the budget cap grew again, this time to $1.3 million.
Mayor Cat Carlton noted that the council asked staff to figure out how to make it cost less. "I think everyone's uncomfortable with how expensive it is," she said, "and it is shocking how much carpet costs."
City Manager Alex McIntyre said the city's contract with the architectural firm hired to come up with new designs ran out, so further analysis of the cost and options couldn't proceed until more money was appropriated.
"It's a Catch-22. We will never have the construction costs until the design is done, and we can't do the design until the council decides." Any contracts and designs will come back to the council for approval, he said. "You're not giving me $1.3 million to start writing checks."
After looking at how much other communities have budgeted for similar projects, Ms. Keith said she now thought the price tag was not astronomical and that the city's need to hire more staff meant that the remodel needed to move forward.
She also asked to look at more cost-effective flooring; Mr. McIntyre said he'd be happy to, but he thought the carpeting proposal was still the least expensive and most easily maintained option.
Mr. Mueller asked to hold a separate vote on the remodel budget, given the lack of analysis in the staff report, but his motion failed without a second.
Mr. Ohtaki made a motion to approve all the items, with the $1.3 million appropriation for the renovation made contingent upon the council approving the final design and any contracts which would be the usual process anyway.
The architectural firm's amended contract will be brought back to council next week, according to the city manager.
Mr. Mueller said after the meeting that he was disappointed that his colleagues refused to allow a separate vote on the remodel, thus forcing him to abstain from voting on the entire financial work plan.
"Substantively, I refuse to appropriate $1.3 million of taxpayer money for a remodel of city hall based on a deficient staff report containing three paragraphs of analysis, when the cost for the project continues to rise in each request and questions still haven't been answered about the project that were posed many months ago," he said.