It was one step forward and possibly one step back for Atherton's civic center on Wednesday, Sept. 5, as the City Council approved at least $2.5 million in cost-saving design changes for a new administration and police building just before hearing that unhappy donors who had pledged at least $2 million toward the civic center might withdraw their pledges.
"I'm going to throw some cold water on you all," said Didi Fisher, a former Atherton council member and mayor and a leader of the Atherton Now group that raised $6.5 million toward funding the civic center. Fisher said with the council's failure to eliminate a new council chamber from the plans and to reduce the size of the building's lobby, "we have the potential to lose at least two million dollars" in promised donations.
After the meeting, Fisher said that council members had all known of donors' wishes to reduce the size of the building's lobby and eliminate or postpone building a new council chamber that would double as an emergency operations center. "This is not news," she said.
Fisher also said it is possible that donors may wait until new bids come in, which is likely to happen early next year, before deciding to rescind pledges.
"Part of my fear is that if one person pulls back, others could ask for their money back," she said.
The council chamber/EOC will be in the revised plans but is designated, as it was in the earlier design, as a "deduct alternative" that could be removed from the project if new bids are high. Eliminating the council chamber is estimated to save $1.65 million.
WRNS Studio architect John Schlueter told the council that downsizing the lobby between the town's administration and planning offices and its police station from 1,500 square feet to 1,100 square feet would save only $50,000 to $75,000 after adding in the redesign cost, which could conceivably be more than the reduction would save.
Council member Bill Widmer expressed dismay that the town hadn't downsized the lobby earlier. "My position hasn't changed since November when we first looked at this," he said. "I feel it's too grand. ... It should have been smaller," he said.
Downsizing the lobby and eliminating the council chamber were two options given to the council, but not recommended for adoption, by a working group including the architects, project managers, members of the town's Civic Center Advisory Committee and town employees.
Also on the not-recommended list was building new police offices, but not building the lobby and the administration and planning offices, estimated to save nearly $7.4 million.
Library change rescinded
The town has been working to design a less expensive civic center since June, when the only two bids to build the project came in more than 40 percent over budget. In August, the council approved design changes to the new library estimated to save $3.14 million while making minimal changes to the building's appearance.
The council voted to rescind at least one of those changes, which called for eliminating a central heat pump that would provide heating and air conditioning to both buildings in favor of two separate systems. While the change might have saved money for the library project, it would require extensive redesign that could take months to complete, Schlueter said.
The council members agreed to most of the cuts recommended by the working group. However, when council member Mike Lempres had to leave the meeting before it was concluded (he said the last-minute rescheduled meeting didn't allow him to change a work obligation), a majority couldn't agree on whether to substitute asphalt shingle roofing for concrete tiles, which would save about $300,000.
According to Schlueter's presentation, the cuts the council approved, which are $2.5 million with the tile roof remaining and $2.8 million with an asphalt shingle roof, leave the project with an $8.2 million "budget gap."
The council also heard about options for financing that would allow the town to borrow money to fill that gap, or to ease cash-flow problems because the town gets most of its revenues only twice yearly from property taxes but would be paying monthly construction bills.
Michael Bush from Urban Futures Inc. told council members that in addition to asking two-thirds of voters to approve a bond to finance part of the civic center, the town can issue COPs, or certificates of participation. COPs skirt the state's requirements for public approval of borrowing by structuring the loans as a lease. COPs have been used locally by the Menlo Park Fire Protection District to fund capital improvements.
Council members asked for more information on other financing options. "Until we get the bids in, I think it's still premature to be making a decision on these things," Widmer said. "There might be a resident of two who might want to underwrite the whole project," he said. "Other than that, I'm still hesitant to go into public debt without the public having a say on it."
"I am not at all averse (to) going out to the public and doing a bond," said Council member Rick DeGolia. "People want this civic center built."
Council member Elizabeth Lewis said she'd be willing to approve a COP for five to 10 years. "We actually have the majority of the funds to build the civic center," she said.