Even the opponents of Atherton's Measure A, an advisory measure asking voters to allow the town to spend more taxpayer money on a new civic center, admit the town needs to do something about its aged and deteriorating offices.
The town's building and planning departments are in leaking portables that don't meet current building codes. The police department uses a garage as a gym and books suspects in a re-purposed shed. The council chambers were built in 1928 as the town hall, and the "new" administration and police offices were built in 1965.
"Clearly the town needs some new structures," said Kathy McKeithen, a former Atherton City Council member and one of the signers of the ballot argument against Measure A. "We don't dispute that," she said.
What is disputed, however, is what to replace them with, and how to pay for it.
What's on the ballot?
Atherton's registered voters should start receiving ballots in the mail this week containing one question: "Should the Town of Atherton supplement private donations with available non-dedicated General Funds to meet the funding shortfall, where one exists, for construction of the new Town Center?"
Voters have until Tuesday, June 6, to return the ballots. The ballot question is an advisory measure, so the vote will not have the force of law, but it will give the town a clear idea of what its residents want.
Why the vote?
The town says it has, or expects to have by the time construction would be completed, enough money to pay the remaining estimated costs for the new town center design the council approved in February. The town has also looked at how to borrow money short-term if needed.
Right now, though, even if the town has enough money to build the civic center, which opponents dispute, it can't spend it. A ballot measure approved by more than 70 percent of voters in 2012 said the design and construction of a new town center should primarily be paid for with donations. Exceptions were included for the library, which has its own library-only tax funds, and for money set aside for new building and planning offices.
Atherton Now, formed in 2015 to raise the money for the civic center, had hoped for at least $25 million in donations, but less than $7 million has been given or pledged so far.
When it became apparent private funds wouldn't come close to covering the cost of the new complex, the City Council decided to ask voters to overturn the 2012 measure and allow the town to spend the money it already has (or expects to have). The council has unanimously endorsed Measure A and all council members signed the measure's ballot argument.
The opponents argue much of the money the town is counting on isn't certain, because it uses revenue projected out four years, through the 2020-2021 fiscal year. They also say they fear the cost of the civic center will balloon once plans go out for bids, which should happen in the fall.
But the town says it trusts its project manager, mack5, which has been providing cost estimates. The report on anticipated funds says the revenues "are projected conservatively."
The opponents also say the town will take money from needed capital improvement projects, such as roads, drainage, and Holbrook-Palmer Park and bicycle and pedestrian improvements.
For the coming year, and in its ongoing five-year capital improvements budget, however, the town has allocated funding to all those projects. The budget for capital improvements does anticipate, however, that the town's parcel tax will be renewed in November and will continue to provide about $1.5 million a year for capital improvements.
The approved design is for a "Santa Barbara Mission-style" two-story building with two wings sharing a central lobby.
Administration, building and planning, and a post office are in one wing, and the police department and a new council chamber that doubles as an emergency operations center are in the other.
A separate modern one-story library would have the renovated historic town hall building as an annex containing a public meeting space and room for a small cafe or catering facilities and the town's history archives.
Outdoor gathering spaces would connect the two buildings, including a large deck joining the library to the historic town hall and a central courtyard. There would be 40,646 square feet of buildings, including just under 11,700 square feet in the library and renovated historic town hall and just under 29,000 in the administration/police building.
Currently, the library has just over 5,000 square feet of floor space, and the town functions that would move into the other building are now using about 18,000 square feet in numerous disconnected buildings.
City Manager George Rodericks says the space in the new single building that will be used by the town's administration, police and planning and building functions is about equivalent to that in the existing buildings, with the additional space going to features such as stairwells, hallways, mechanical rooms, janitor closets, restrooms and elevators, plus a lobby and larger council chamber.
Opponents say the buildings are extravagant and a much less expensive facility could be built. The current project was designed to be built with donated funds, said resident Howard "Sandy" Crittenden, a former Park and Recreation Committee member who also signed the argument against the ballot measure. If donations can't be raised, the building should be redesigned much more frugally, he said.
"I believe it's too expensive. I believe there was minimal restraint in designing this," he said. He suggested "maybe a prefab building that doesn't look prefab," such as the one he recently built in another part of the state for only $95 a square foot with all the amenities.
Opponents also say they believe more contributions can be raised with more outreach to Atherton residents, but proponents say many Atherton residents believe public money should pay for more of the new facilities.
In 2016, the town downsized an earlier plan by 3,200 square feet, which was projected to reduce the cost by at least $2 million.
The fine print
The full text of Measure A says the council has a plan for funding the construction that would not add any new "project-specific" taxes, use the town's reserves or change the current parcel tax (which expires in 2018).
An April 18, 2017, "Town Center Project Funding Plan" that is labeled "all inclusive" shows a total cost of the project at $51.5 million, which includes the cost of design and construction, environmental studies, project management, furniture, fixtures, telephone and data systems, moving and staging, and contingencies. A total of $3.4 million has been spent to date.
That "all-inclusive" cost does not include any of the components pulled out of the project for separate bids, such as any energy-saving "green" features beyond those required by the state.
The funding plan shows library funds available by the anticipated project completion date, in the 2020-21 fiscal year, are expected to exceed the estimated cost by more than $1.6 million.
The plan shows costs of the administration-police-council building about $2 million less than the funds the town figures it will have by the end of construction.
The costs include contingencies of about 10 percent for construction and $3.4 million for cost escalation by the time construction is expected to start in late 2017, but do not include contingencies for the "additional costs."
Mr. Rodericks said that he expects the town will need to borrow some money in the short term "for cash flow purposes," especially since it receives its primary revenue, property taxes, twice a year, in December and April.
He said the town might need to borrow between $5 million and $10 million, for no more than 10 years, and could pay it off earlier without a penalty.
Did 2012 measure bind town to follow voters wishes?
Measure A, which asks Atherton's voters whether they are willing to spent more public money on a new town center, is clearly marked on the ballot as an "advisory measure."
That means voters will tell the City Council what they think, but their vote won't bind the council to do what is recommended.
What isn't so clear is whether the 2012 measure it seeks to overturn was also an advisory measure.
The town has, until now, treated the vote on 2012's Measure L as if it is binding. The measure, which received 73.5 percent "yes" votes, asked: "Should the Town of Atherton primarily use private donations to construct and design a new Town Center?" It said building fees or future grant money could be used, but not general fund or parcel tax money.
The town has followed those guidelines as it has designed the civic center, with library funds paying for all library design work, and donations and some building money being used for the design of other facilities.
But Atherton City Attorney Bill Conners recently opined that the 2012 measure was also an advisory measure, and an opinion from a Los Angeles attorney has backed him up.
Mr. Conners told the council in February that a 2016 California Supreme Court ruling says measures put on the ballot by a legislative body must either be in the form of an ordinance, or law, to be binding, or be nonbinding advisory measures, he said.
Since the 2012 measure wasn't an ordinance, it's not binding, he said.
Opponents of the current advisory measure say they think he's wrong, and that the court ruling he refers to did not apply to local elections.
In April, the town received a legal opinion from Los Angeles attorney Craig A. Steele, that backs up Mr. Conners' opinion, but for different reasons. "I believe ... the Measure is not legally binding because the voters do not have the authority to restrict the City Council's authority over fiscal matters," Mr. Steele wrote in an April 14 letter. He also said: "... the voters did not actually adopt a law for the City Council to follow, and the wording of the Measure was suggestive and not mandatory" because it used the word "should" instead of "must."
Mr. Steele suggested that the matter is not crystal clear, however, since the 2012 measure was not marked as an "advisory measure" as required for non-binding measures. He suggested the town "seek a clarifying vote of the people or, as an alternative, the opinion of the court in a validating action."
How to vote in Atherton election
Ballots will be mailed starting May 8 to Atherton's registered voters. If a ballot is not received by May 17, contact the county's Registration & Elections Division at (650) 312-5222 or through shapethefuture.org.
Register to vote by May 22 on the website, or by requesting registration materials by phone.
Voted ballots that are mailed back must be postmarked by June 6 and received by June 9.
Voted ballots may also be dropped off at the Atherton town offices, 91 Ashfield Road, during business hours, weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 4 p.m., or at the county's Voting Center in the Registration & Elections Division at 40 Tower Road, San Mateo, on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
On Election Day, June 6, the Voting Center will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Ballots may be dropped off at the town offices until 8 p.m. that day. No other polling places will be open on Election Day.
Voters may also vote in person at the Voting Center.
The "Track and Confirm" tool on shapethefuture.org can verify when ballot materials were mailed and when the Registration & Elections Division received voted ballots.