Atherton voters are now receiving ballots in the mail to cast for or against Measure A, an advisory measure that asks residents whether the town should supplement private donations and existing dedicated funds with available non-dedicated money from the general fund to build a new complex to replace the decrepit set of buildings and trailers that now serve as the Town Center.
There's some opposition to the measure, but even residents who encourage a no vote acknowledge that new administrative offices and a police station are greatly needed.
What's in dispute is the cost and, by extension, the funding mechanisms that might have to be called upon.
The planned project, which in addition to administrative offices and desperately needed facilities for police services also includes a new library, is estimated to cost about $51.5 million. But a robust fund that can be used only for library services exists, as do dedicated funds for building department facilities; with those funds and the $7 million raised in private donations, the town estimates that an additional $18 million would be needed for the project.
An ill-advised 2012 ballot measure theoretically locked the town into relying primarily on private donations to supplement existing library and building funds for the overall project. Community leaders, including former councilwoman Didi Fisher and current council member Elizabeth Lewis, expressed confidence that residents would open up their wallets and contribute, as Portola Valley residents had done years before to build that town's center. Atherton voters approved the 2012 measure overwhelmingly.
The fundraising effort fizzled, and volunteers behind it said many residents were telling them that public buildings should be built with public funds. The town changed course, and with Measure A is asking voters to get behind a plan that would result in a center designed after years of community meetings and resident input, with the intent of creating not only efficient work space to administer town services, but a community hub -- now sadly lacking in Atherton -- where residents have access to pleasant indoor and outdoor space for gatherings.
Anyone who is not convinced of the need for a new town center should take a tour, starting with the dreary, creaky trailers from which town staff administers planning and building services. If it's been raining, you may not want to inhale too deeply. The main administrative offices won't take long to walk through -- space is so limited it is a mark of sheer determination that the city manager and other staff members are able to function efficiently. The cramped police station tour shouldn't take long, either, but if police have made a recent arrest, you'll have to skip a walk-through of the re-purposed shed that serves as a booking and temporary holding facility.
The $18 million in general fund spending the town is asking voters to endorse might seem to the frugal as too high a price tag for a new town center. But according to town officials, including City Council members with a solid track record for fiscal responsibility, the town is in such good financial shape that planned and needed capital improvement projects -- including fixes to drainage problems and improvements to roadways and the park -- will not be affected. And it should be noted that the town last year downsized an earlier plan for the center, shaving off about 3,200 square feet of building and $2 million in costs.
A new town center for Atherton is long overdue, and the plan will not place an onerous financial burden on the residents who will benefit from it. Vote yes on Measure A.